NLRB rules that graduate students are employees

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled on Aug. 23 that graduate students at Columbia University who assist with teaching and research as part of their education are employees of the university. The ruling, which the NLRB stated applies to private universities nationwide, allows graduate students to unionize.

The decision overturned a 2004 NLRB ruling that graduate students at Brown University were not employees of the school. The NLRB board ruled 3-1 in favor of employee status for graduate students at Columbia. This is the third time in 16 years that the board has changed its position on the question of whether graduate students are primarily students.

President Peter Salovey sent a letter to members of the Yale community in response the ruling, in which he wrote: “As a Yale graduate student, professor, and administrator, I have experienced firsthand how the teacher-student relationship is central to the university’s academic enterprise. The mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars. I have long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’” 

He added, “Although I disagree with the NLRB’s decision announced today, it presents an opportunity for our campus to engage in a robust discussion about the pros and cons of graduate student unionization. We should embrace the chance to debate this important issue, and we will conduct this campus discussion in a manner that is proper for a university — free from intimidation, restriction, and pressure by anyone to silence any viewpoint. All members of the Yale community should feel free to express their views on these matters, and we look forward to constructive and respectful discussions in the months ahead.”

Yale was one of nine leading research universities that filed an amicus brief last winter calling on the NLRB to continue its longstanding recognition that graduate teaching and research assistants are primarily students, not employees with a right to unionize. 

Currently, students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences receive an annual stipend ranging from $29,950 to $34,450 to meet living expenses. Tuition ($39,800 for 2016-2017) is covered by a tuition fellowship from the graduate school, research grants, or national and international fellowships; no Ph.D. student pays tuition. In addition, the Graduate School pays for comprehensive health care for all students and their families.

The Graduate School has said that, in a typical semester, more than 60% of Yale doctoral students do no teaching at all. Graduate students at Yale only assist in teaching for at most 6 of their 12 semesters at Yale. Over the course of six years, no more than 14% of a doctoral student’s time is devoted to teaching as part of his or her training, and for many it is much less.

See more about graduate student education at Yale.

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