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Big labor win for grad students at private colleges

A view of Columbia University. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Graduate students at Columbia, Duke and other places of higher education are celebrating a labor ruling made Tuesday night. The National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students working as teaching or research assistants at private universities have the right to bargain collectively, to organize a union. Students at public institutions can already do this.  

The petition was filed by students at Columbia University, who teamed up with the United Auto Workers Union in seeking representation. William A. Herbert, executive director at the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, said the ruling is a basic one.

“It goes back to basics in that it focuses on the language of the National Labor Relations Act as it defines what an employee is,” he said.

The movement for graduate students to unionize started at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, but few exercise the right.

Gary Rhoades, director at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said the decision to open collective bargaining rights up to private institutions could mark a turning point.

“What is happening in this decision by the NLRB about private universities is recognizing what has already been recognized for some time in the public sector for some time, at least in many states,” he said.

Columbia University said this in a statement after the ruling came down:

First and foremost, students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third party in this scholarly training.

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