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Lawyers for Columbia and Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110 gave opening statements at the first National Labor Relations Board hearing to decide if the graduate students have the right to unionize.

Lawyers for Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110, the group of Columbia graduate students attempting to unionize, and the University presented opening statements on Tuesday morning at the first National Labor Relations Board hearing to decide if the graduate students have the right to unionize.

The next hearing is on Thursday, at which lawyers will call the first witnesses, including Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg.

Graduate students at private universities have not had the right to unionize since a 2004 NLRB ruling in a case involving Brown University. The case defined graduate teaching and research assistants as "primarily students" and therefore not employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB announced its decision to reconsider the 2004 precedent on March 13 by granting review of the GWC's petition for recognition, along with a petition from graduate students seeking union recognition at The New School. The New York regional office of the NLRB had previously dismissed the GWC's petition, citing the Brown precedent, after which the GWC appealed to the national level of the board.

According to Capital New York, lawyers for the GWC and Columbia agreed on stipulated facts, which include a basic description of Columbia and its graduate programs, and briefly stated their positions, during the hearing.

[Related: NEWS ANALYSIS: Fate of union recognition depends on whether graduate students can be considered workers, lawyers say]

Thomas Meiklejohn, a lawyer representing the GWC, argued that the Brown ruling denying private university graduate students the right to unionize should be overturned, calling the separation of student and employee an "artificial dichotomy."

In their opening statements, Bernard Plum and Edward Brill, who serve as Columbia's legal counsel from the firm Proskauer Rose, said graduate students are students, not employees, and that the 2004 Brown precedent should be upheld.

Before the hearing officially started, lawyers for both parties met privately for over an hour to discuss subpoenas for documents the GWC issued to Columbia. Meiklejohn said they made progress on the subpoenas, and that Columbia would be providing some of the documents on Tuesday and Wednesday. The lawyers kept the contents of the subpoenas private.

After the lawyers agreed on the stipulated facts and stated their positions, the GWC moved to enter collective bargaining agreements between 12 public universities and their graduate students. Columbia's lawyers objected, saying that because employees at public schools do not fall under the National Labor Relations Act, the contracts are irrelevant. Audrey Eveillard, the hearing officer, said she will decide whether the evidence is admissible by Thursday morning.

The GWC and Columbia will call their first witnesses at the next hearing on Thursday. The GWC will call Ken Lang, a UAW international representative, and Columbia will call Rittenberg, according to a UAW source. Lang was present at Tuesday's hearing, though he did not testify.

The UAW source said the hearings would resume on Thursday with witness testimony.

"The hearings have just started, and today was really to help set the course for the rest of the hearings," the source said.  |  @EmmaKolchin

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