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NLRB Rules Columbia Graduate Students Can Legally Form Unions

Columbia_University_-_Low_Memorial_Library-DThe National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that graduate students at universities across the country will now be able to unionize. The case involved grad students at Columbia, and overturned a 2004 precedent in a case involving Brown University.

This ruling comes after two years of Columbia graduate students pushing for the right to unionize. A petition of theirs was denied by the NLRB back in February 2015.

According to Politico, Columbia may appeal the board’s decision. The University has yet to release an official statement.

You can read the NLRB’s full ruling here.

Update, 4:47pm: Caroline Adelman, Media Relations Director for CU, gave a statement to the New York Times disagreeing with the ruling. In it she said, “While we are reviewing the ruling, Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.”

Update, 8/24/2016 at 2:25pmColumbia has released their official statement on the NLRB ruling in an email from the provost. You can read it below:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed a position it has held for the past 12 years and decided that students at private universities may be treated as employees for the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act when they are appointed to positions as teaching assistants or research assistants. The decision overturns a 2004 ruling involving Brown University.

Columbia and many of our peer universities have challenged this position. Nearly all of the students at Columbia affected by this decision are graduate students. We believe that the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace. Being a graduate student can take many years of intense research, teaching and study. But unlike university employees, graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers.

Students whom the NLRB determines are eligible to vote will soon have an opportunity to express their own views on this matter in an upcoming election, on a date to be announced by the NLRB. All those eligible to vote in the election will weigh for themselves the potential benefits and drawbacks of having their interests represented by the United Auto Workers. For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.

Over the past decade, Columbia’s schools have made great strides in addressing a number of stipend and quality-of-life concerns. We have established a productive dialogue with the Graduate School Advisory Council and with other student organizations that has resulted in enhancements for Ph.D. as well as M.A. students. The University will continue on this path not only because it is right, but also because it helps us attract the very best students in the world.

In the coming weeks, students should inform themselves of the arguments on both sides of this important issue. More information, including answers to frequently asked questions and the text of the NLRB decision and other documents, is available at

We look forward to engaging in a respectful and open conversation about the potential benefits and drawbacks of overlaying our academic enterprise with the uniformity and contractual formality of union representation.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, we will continue to ensure that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment.


John H. Coatsworth

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  • CC says:

    @CC Hey undergrads and alumni, please sign this letter of support for grad student workers to let Columbia know that undergrads have got their backs!

    1. JJ says:

      @JJ Why on earth would undergrads support a decision that is going to cut their access, availability and opportunities? Ta’s and grad students are hardly available as it is, it will only be worse. Research hours will plummet.

      1. CC says:

        @CC That’s totally inaccurate. This will make grad student more available (and happier, so more productive). They’ll get paid more, have ways to report harassment without fearing getting fired/expelled, etc. If you seriously think fair and timely pay and freedom from retaliation for reporting harassment are bad things, this letter really doesn’t want your signature.

  • Jos says:

    @Jos This good for grad students, but bad for everyone else at a university, especially undergrads. Undergrad education will suffer significantly with this ruling.

    1. CC '09 Alum who returns to bwog when Columbia is in the news. says:

      @CC '09 Alum who returns to bwog when Columbia is in the news. How will undergrads suffer from this? When you appropriately compensate people for the work they are doing they tend to produce better results. Grad students to date have been treated a lot more like indentured servants than respected members of a university community. I don’t see how this will negatively impact undergrads.

    2. CC 2018 says:

      @CC 2018 1.) undergraduate TAs will also be included in the bargaining unit. this directly benefits undergraduates who TA as well as increasing teaching quality because their instructors are no longer being so badly exploited.

      2.) I was taught by unionized teachers for my entire life before coming to Columbia, and it never made my education suffer or made my teachers less willing to give individualized attention and support. It’s insulting to imply that unionized instructors will make education worse.

      1. As says:

        @As No, undergrads are not covered in this decision. It applies to grad students only. And yes, unions may set limits on number of students, numbers of hours of teaching, research, etc. This is not how the academic world works, especially in the sciences. Unions are going to say you can only work in your lab forty hours per week, nothing is going to get done.

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