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Potential graduate-student unionization re-re-reversal?

October 28, 2010

Courtesy of CGAphoto

New York University graduate students seems to have prevailed in letting a regional director of National Labor Relations Board hear arguments on a long-standing union drive at the university. NYU graduate students have the magic touch, since they were the first to overturn a 40-year 28-year precedent prohibiting graduate-student unions at private universities in 2000–only to be re-reversed in 2004. This case will be interesting to watch, as the ruling opens a new line of argumentation that may only have narrow implications for NYU students, apart from any other unionization efforts.

In NLRB’s opening reasoning for reversing the regional director’s decision, they point to NYU’s administrative policy of appointing graduate students with more than 40 contact hours in an academic year to adjunct faculty–and admission into the adjunct faculty’s bargaining unit. Student’s with less than 40 contact hours remain teaching assistants–and not unionized. This could be the factor that equates graduate assistants with adjunct faculty–thereby, open to unionization. This may not be the case elsewhere, so this eventual ruling may only have narrow implications.

It’s not surprising to see the issue come up again for reversal. After a lengthy holdout by Republicans, President Obama’s appointees for the NLRB were approved.  If history is an indicator, then the Democratic-controlled NLRB will be in favor of NYU’s graduate student union, as it did in NYU I under Clinton appointees. It was a Republican-appointed board that reversed the ruling in Brown.  The issue has been the same in all cases–whether graduate-student can be considered employees. Anti-union rulings cite the ruling of a 1972 case at Adelphi University, while pro-union rulings cite the dissent by Fanning in a similar case between medical residents at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in 1976.

NYU II will be interesting to watch. I anticipate that NYU graduate students will prevail in winning recognition, but the question will be if the ruling will be narrowly tailored to NYU’s situtation, or if it will have broader impact on the numerous union drives at private universities.

Here is my paper on the topic of graduate-student unionization.

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