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Obama’s labor appointees likely to force private universities to accept grad student unions

The National Labor Relations Board has flip-flopped over the past 15 years on whether graduate teaching assistants at private universities have the right to unionize.

Under the Obama administration, the board appears ready to flip back to its original ruling.

Inside Higher Ed reports that the board voted 3-1 to consider the United Auto Workers’ attempt to unionize grad students at the New School in New York:

While the board only agreed to review the issue, the current majority of the board is generally viewed as sympathetic to unions. Having the board reverse its position on unionization at private universities has been a major goal of academic labor during the Obama administration.

Oddly, the board may have forecast its intentions when it denied a bid by Northwestern University football players to unionize this summer, Inside Higher Ed said. The board wrote in that case:

“the scholarship players bear little resemblance to the graduate student assistants or student janitors and cafeteria workers whose employee status the board has considered in other cases.”

The publication has a useful timeline of NLRB decisions on private universities and grad students: New York University TAs were ruled eligible to unionize in the original 2000 decision, but that was overturned in 2004 in a case involving Brown University TAs.

It wasn’t until 2011 that a regional NLRB official, responding to another petition from NYU TAs, questioned the logic of the 2004 reversal. But because NYU and the UAW reached a compromise to withdraw the petition, the board never ruled on it.

Inside Higher Ed predicts that higher education administrators will argue that collective bargaining would “interfere with the professor-student relationship and could restrict academic decisions made by professors who supervise graduate students.”

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