The graduate student unionization effort may be stalled if the New York regional director of the National Labor Relations Board determines she does not have the power to overrule precedents established at the board's national level.
The precedent in question comes from a 2004 NLRB decision involving Brown University that held that graduate teaching and research assistants are "primarily students" and not employees.
Wednesday marked the end of a key step in the unionization effort, as lawyers for Columbia and Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers—the group of graduate students attempting to officially unionize—submitted final briefs to Regional Director Karen Fernbach following a series of hearings that spanned two months.
Whether Fernbach is limited by current precedent is a main point of contention in the briefs.
Columbia asserts that she must rely on the precedent and dismiss the GWC's petition for the right to unionize, but the GWC argues that Fernbach has the power to override the precedent.
The NLRB's current five-person governing body—referred to as the Board—was appointed by President Barack Obama, CC '83, and is expected to be more labor-friendly than the 2004 Bush-appointed Board that ruled in the Brown case.
If Fernbach grants the GWC's petition, graduate students will vote in an election to determine if they will unionize. If she dismisses it, the GWC will request review from the Board, a process that would extend the timeline of the unionization effort.
According to the brief submitted by Proskauer Rose, the firm representing Columbia, the Board reinstated the GWC's petition—which Fernbach had originally dismissed, citing the Brown precedent—in order to develop "a factual record on which it could consider Brown University." According to the brief, "now that the record requested by the Board has been created, the petition must again be dismissed."
However, the brief submitted by Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly, the firm that represents the GWC, argues that the Board does not expect Fernbach to "blindly follow" the Brown precedent, given that the Board reversed Fernbach's initial dismissal and ordered a similar review for a case involving New York University in 2010.
Lawyers representing Columbia declined to comment. The lawyer representing the GWC was out of the country and unavailable to comment.
Other major points of contention over the course of the 12 hearing dates included whether graduate teaching and research assistants' positions are professional or educational, whether the GWC constitutes a "labor organization" with the power to petition the NLRB, and what the scope of the GWC's bargaining unit would be should it gain recognition.
The hearings included testimony from Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Carlos Alonso, former Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, multiple department chairs, and Longxi Zhao, a former teaching assistant who is petitioning the University for reinstatement.