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Can Graduate Student Assistants Unionize?

January 14, 2016

In 2004, the NLRB found that graduate student assistants at Brown University who performed services in connection with their studies were not employees and thus could not unionize.  The NLRB is now revisiting this issue in a case involving Columbia University and is inviting comments before the end of February on the following questions:

  1. Should the NLRB modify or overrule its determination that graduate student assistants are not employees?

  1. If the NLRB modifies or overrules the Brown University case, what should be the standard for determining whether graduate student assistants engaged in research are statutory employees?

  1. If the Board concludes that graduate student assistants are employees and can unionize, would a bargaining unit composed of different types of students be appropriate (for example, teaching assistants and research assistants)?

  1. If the Board concludes that graduate student assistants are employees, what standard should the Board apply to determine whether they are only temporary employees?

The fact that the NLRB is even asking these questions indicates that change may be coming.  This is consistent with the fact that the NLRB has been liberalizing its approach to labor and employment issues.  Therefore, any institutions with graduate student assistants should watch this case carefully and consider submitting their feedback during the comment period, which runs from now through February 29, 2016.  The following is a link to the NLRB’s website explaining the process for doing so: https://www.nlrb.gov/news-outreach/news-story/board-invites-briefs-columbia-university.

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