Yale, other universities submit amicus brief to National Labor Relations Board

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First-year students on their way to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' matriculation ceremony. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Yale is among nine leading research universities that today filed a brief calling on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to continue its longstanding recognition that graduate teaching and research assistants are primarily students, not employees with a right to unionize.

The amicus brief was filed in a case before the NLRB in which the United Auto Workers (UAW) seeks to unionize graduate students at Columbia University.

Yale along with Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Stanford argue in the brief that the NLRB should not reverse or modify its 2004 ruling in Brown University that graduate teaching assistants are primarily students — not employees — and that imposing collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude upon academic decision making.  In 2004, the NLRB agreed with these arguments and rejected the attempt by the UAW to organize graduate students at Brown.

Read about graduate education at Yale

Amici believe that reversal or modification of Brown would significantly damage private sector education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long-protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy,” the universities state in the brief.

The schools contend that there is no compelling reason for the NLRB to change its current position because the facts and circumstances regarding graduate student education have not materially changed since the board last considered the issue.

The schools also argue that imposing collective bargaining with graduate students would intrude on the schools’ academic freedom because the functions performed by graduate teaching and research assistants are an integral part of the institutions’ academic programs. Academic judgments — such as who may teach, what may be taught, and who may be admitted to study — could be subjected to collective bargaining, note the schools.  The brief provides an example of how the most basic educational decisions, such as a professor’s decision to replace a multiple-choice final exam with an essay exam, could become subject to union grievances and decisions by outside arbitrators.

The brief recounts the experience of New York University (NYU), which had a graduate student union before the 2004 Brown decision, and then had to decide whether to continue to recognize and bargain with the United Auto Workers voluntarily. Both NYU’s Senate Affairs Committee and Faculty Advisory Committee recommended against continued recognition of the union. “The readiness of the United Auto Workers to grieve issues of academic decision-making and the nature of the arbitration process leads the Committee to conclude that it is too risky to the future academic progress of NYU for it to have graduate assistants represented by a union that has exhibited little sensitivity to academic values and traditions,” the NYU faculty committee concluded.

 “It is well known that under virtually all collective bargaining agreements, the union, not individual bargaining union members, has the right to file grievances, and the sole discretion whether to file for arbitration,” the brief argues. “The union might grieve in order to protect what it considers its institutional interest, notwithstanding the particular interests of the affected teaching assistants. In real-life terms, the impact on the student-faculty relationship would not merely be ‘collateral damage.’ It could be enormous and psychologically destructive to both teaching assistants and faculty.”

The schools also argue that traditional collective bargaining cannot be applied to private institutions because teaching and research by graduate students is not measured in economic terms, and stipends and other financial support for students are not based on a market value. The level of stipends provided to graduate students at private universities is independent of the costs of hiring non-student teachers, the brief contends, and it would cost the schools much less to hire adjunct faculty than to provide stipends and teaching and research opportunities to graduate students.

A number of public universities have graduate student unions, but the private institutions argue in the brief that the many differences between state and federal labor laws, and differences in how teaching assistantships are structured in public and private graduate schools, mean that it cannot be assumed that collective bargaining at private institutions would have the same impact that it has had at public universities. “Bargaining … will inevitably produce disputes, litigation, and perhaps strikes such as those which have frequently occurred at public universities, thereby inserting the bargaining process directly into academic judgments and experiences,” the schools contend.

The NLRB invited interested parties to file briefs in the Columbia University case.  It is not known when the NLRB will issue a decision in the case.

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