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Are Graduate Students Employees?

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A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the arm-of-enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), might label graduate students as university employees. Such a ruling converts graduate students into employees, thus giving them collective bargaining rights.

These collective bargaining rights would include wages, hours worked, and working conditions; but may also imply bargaining rights for required classes, length of dissertations and other circumstances that only a student would be involved with.


Now, as a brief note, there are current collective bargaining rights for limited classes of student-employees in the United States today. In public universities, state labor laws dictate the student-employee relationship.  However, the new ruling applies to the private sector, which is what the NLRB governs.

The argument for the NLRB ruling in favor of student unions is not new, but a famous ruling by the NLRB in 2004 from Brown University still stands. In that ruling, the NLRB concluded that graduate students are essentially just that, students. Their relationship with the school and with faculty is too attenuated to be considered a “school employee.”


The answer is pretty straightforward if the NLRB does what it has been doing this entire time. That is, if the ruling is “no,” then nothing dramatic will change and graduate students will remain graduate students.


If the NLRB does rule in favor of student unionization and concludes graduate students are more like employees rather than students, then it would, at the minimum, open up the windows of unionization for private universities across the United States. This does not mean every private university will see their graduate students unionize, but it does mean the option is there, so long as no unique state or federal laws preclude such unionization.

The more severe effects could be a change in academic structure. If graduate students unionize, then they would have the right to entertain negotiations for what they believe to be better learning (perhaps it would technically be called working?) conditions; this could entail discussions from “curriculum” change to even “graduation requirements.”

Additionally, if graduate students are unionized in private universities, a “yes” ruling would also include certain benefits for those union members like health care. This means certain federal protections like the Family and Medical Leave Act would be required by universities to provide for their graduate students. Those private universities against the idea of their graduate students unionizing may very well decrease the amount they enroll (or hire?) in order to compensate for the greater benefits that will be required.

The ruling by the NLRB isn’t expected to come down until late August, but if it is a yes, then be prepared for some type of response, for better or for worse, by private universities.

UPDATE: In August, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities may unionize. 

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