Last week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in favor of a group of graduate students at New York University (NYU) who had wished to unionize but had been prevented by the university. This is a historic decision and an important advance in the welfare of graduate students and potentially other student-employees at universities nationwide.
Though the decision is likely to be appealed, it marks an important recognition that graduate students, shouldered with so much of the teaching, clerical and secretarial work at many universities, have rights to collective bargaining. "I must conclude there is simply no basis to deny collective bargaining rights to statutory employees merely because they are employed by an educational institution while enrolled as a student," wrote NLRB Regional Director Daniel Silverman in his decision.
This decision may help graduate students at Yale press their case against the university for better housing, benefits and better pay. Though Harvard has not faced a similar effort to unionize teaching fellows or any other segment of the graduate student population, this decision may provide the basis for any future challenge.
We agree with Silverman's decision and the way he differentiated different roles within the life of the graduate student. Whether it is working for a professor, grading exams or sitting at a department's front desk, graduate students are often employed in tasks disconnected from their studies, at times in totally different parts of the university. Like any group of workers, they should have a right to unionize.
The case has not finished its march through the legal system and there is no case being made at Harvard, but for the graduate students at NYU, and potentially at Yale and elsewhere, we applaud this decision and hope it will bring greater fairness to graduate students through the right of collective bargaining.
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