Volume 74, Number 13 | July 28 - August 03 , 2004

Labor board reverses on graduate assistants

By Albert Amateau

The National Labor Relations Board narrowly decided on July 13 that graduate student assistants at Brown University are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, reversing the board’s landmark ruling four years ago that allowed New York University graduate assistants to be represented by the United Auto Workers.

While the 3-2 ruling will not alter the current contract between N.Y.U. and the approximately 1,100 graduate assistants represented by U.A.W. Local 2110, that contract comes up for renewal next year.

“We believe the N.L.R.B. decided wrongly in 2000 and we are gratified by the decision,” said John Beckman, N.Y.U. spokesperson. “The university will not make any decisions about its next steps until it has an opportunity to review the ruling carefully,” he added.

Local 2110 is reviewing its legal options regarding the Brown University decision, said Maida Rosenstein, president of the local. “We’re very resolved to continue organizing graduate assistants and we expect N.Y.U. to honor the contract until it expires and bargain in good faith for a renewal,” she said. “Nothing in the [Brown University] decision stops N.Y.U. from bargaining in good faith,” she added.

The local is currently trying to organize the 1,800 graduate teaching and research assistants — known as G.A.’s — at Columbia University and about 800 Pratt University employees — including graduate instructors and undergraduates who work as laboratory and office assistants — at Pratt’s Brooklyn and 14th St. Manhattan locations.

The N.Y.U. decision four years ago was a unanimous vote by a panel of three of the five N.L.R.B. members, two Democrats and one Republican, Rosenstein said. It reversed a 25-year board precedent holding that graduate students were not employees as defined by the labor relations act but were primarily students.

Brown University, however, sought a reversal in connection with an election involving its own graduate assistants who were being organized by the U.AW. The ballots were impounded pending the university’s request for review. The majority decision by N.L.R.B. chairperson Robert J. Batista and fellow Republicans Peter C. Schumber and Ronald Meisburg reinstated the old precedent.

“Our decision turns on our fundamental belief that that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process,” the majority opinion said.

The dissenting opinion by Democrats Wilma B. Liebman and Dennis P. Walsh said the majority “minimized the economic relationship between graduate student assistants and their universities.” The dissent also contended that the majority decision is “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality.”

While not unexpected, given the political nature of the vote, the N.L.R.B. action was a blow to union organizing of graduate assistants throughout the country. But it also galvanized union sentiment among graduate students.

Two weeks after the Brown University decision, graduate assistants from about 20 different colleges attended the 13th annual Conference of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions at Teachers Collage of Columbia. Michael Palm, head of the N.Y.U. graduate assistants chapter of Local 2110, said that anger over the Brown decision boosted attendance at the conference to 130 representatives. Delegates at the conference talked about a one-day strike of teaching assistants in response to the Brown decision and all agreed to continue organizing efforts.

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