The fight over graduate students' ability to unionize at private universities has moved one step forward, with both Columbia University and the Graduate Workers of Columbia University submitting briefs with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday.
GWC, the group of graduate research and teaching assistants, first petitioned to gain recognition as a union over one year ago. After a series of hearings at the regional level of the NLRB, its highest arm—a five-person governing body in Washington referred to as the Board—announced in December that it would review GWC's petition to unionize.
The Board has the power to overturn the 2004 Brown University precedent that currently prevents graduate students at private universities from unionizing. Appointed by President Barack Obama, CC '83, the current Board is expected to be more labor-friendly than the Board that set the Brown precedent.
In their brief, Columbia argued that "students have a primarily academic relationship with the University and therefore are not employees."
In return, GWC argued that research and teaching assistants who "perform services for Columbia, receive compensation for performing these services, work to fulfill the mission of the University, and work under its direction and control," and are therefore employees.
Should the Board overturn the Brown precedent, graduate students at private universities nationwide would be affected. In response to the review, nine private universities—Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale—jointly submitted an amicus brief urging the Board to reaffirm the current precedent.
"Indeed, a departure from Brown threatens to cause grievous damage to higher education, not because there has been any new evidence or arguments to support such a change, but solely because of the changed political composition of the Board," the brief said.
Several groups, including the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, submitted amicus briefs in support of GWC.
"We are excited to have the support of faculty organizations and look forward to a speedy decision by the NLRB so that we can vote, demonstrate our majority support, and get into bargaining as soon as possible," Chandler Walker, an organizer with GWC, said.
GWC and and Columbia have until March 14 to file reply briefs to each other's arguments.