In a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for graduate students nationwide, a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled yesterday that graduate students at New York University (NYU), a private university, have the right to unionize.
The case, brought to the NLRB by the United Auto Workers (UAW), involved a collection of NYU graduate students who had attempted to hold a union election, prompting objections from the NYU administration.
The university claimed graduate student teaching provides educational experiences for graduate students themselves, which means the students do not deserve the right to lobby collectively for wages and benefits.
Yesterday's ruling, released by NLRB Regional Director Daniel Silverman, held that the law must consider NYU's graduate students employees of the university, entitled to the same rights as other workers, because they teach.
"I must conclude that 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," Silverman wrote in the board's decision.
NYU officials have said in the past that they would appeal a ruling in favor of the graduate students.
Robert Berne, an NYU vice president, said last night the university disagreed with Silverman's reasoning.
"The decision is a departure from the law as it has existed for some 25 years," Berne wrote in a statement. "Silverman's decision gives little recognition to the realities of modern
graduate education, erroneously deciding a fundamental issue that is a crucial matter of public policy for private universities."
If NYU decides to appeal, the full labor board in Washington will hear arguments and render a final judgment.
Graduate students last night said they were thrilled with the decision.
Kimberly Johnson, an NYU teaching assistant and graduate student in American Studies, said that although she and her friends in Greenwich Village are celebrating the decision, the NYU union's fight is not over.
"We're very happy. But this is just a step," she said.
Lisa Jessup, a United Auto Workers administrator who has been working with the NYU students, said the students' next step is to hold a union election.
"We're optimistic we'll be able to hold one this spring," she said.
Once a union is formed, the graduate students can ask NYU for full benefits and compensation--which Jessup said would not necessarily lead to a tuition increase.
"That's a typical employer argument. NYU has a billion dollar endowment, and they have a lot of unrestricted net assets," she said.
NYU officials have argued that the university might be forced to pass the added costs onto students if graduate students became money-seeking employees.
Unionization of graduate students is already legal at public universities, but state taxpayers--and not students--bear the costs of wages and benefits. According to the UAW, about 20 percent of teaching assistants, all at public universities, are currently unionized nationwide.
At Yale University, where graduate students and school officials have long been embroiled in a debate over unionization and benefits paid to teaching assistants, leaders of a nascent graduate student union said they hoped the university would respond favorably to yesterday's ruling.
Last week, the Yale administration agreed to follow the NLRB's recommendations on the broad question of whether graduate students have the right to organize.
But last night, Yale President Richard C. Levin said the New York ruling did not apply to the Connecticut school.
"We continue to believe that unionization is not in the best interest of graduate students at Yale, and we trust that, if faced with the question, our community will come to the same conclusion," Levin said in a statement.
Harvard's teaching fellows have not publicly agitated for unionization, though many have expressed their support for the Yale unionization effort.
Joe Wrinn, Harvard's spokesperson, said last night he was not aware of the decision and had no comment.
--Alexander B. Ginsberg, Robert K. Silverman and the Associated Press reports contributed to the reporting of this article.
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