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Dear, student. Congrats! You’re admitted. As an employee?

Graduate assistants, either research or teaching, are in positions which could be seen as one of two roles, as graduate students or employees of the institution. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate teaching assistants perform teaching or teaching-related duties. Due to the required duties, there have been constant debates as well as legal cases that have changed whether they are to be considered students or employees. Students at private institutions were able to take the debate to the National Labor Relations Board since the National Labor Relations Act applies to most private sector employers, which include private institutions.

Prior to the 21st century, graduate assistants at private institutions were classified solely as students. In New York University, 332 NLRB 1205 (2000), New York University stated that these students were not employees because their primary duty to the institution was being a student. The National Labor Relations Board found no basis that would exempt graduate assistants from being classified as statutory employees or denying them collective-bargaining rights. Under 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, graduate assistants at private universities were to be classified as employees. The same principles had been applied the previous year, in Boston Medical Center, 330 NLRB 152 (1999) which permitted interns, residents, and fellows to collectively bargaining.

Graduate assistants were only considered employees for about four years until Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004) stated that the student assistants were not employees. It specified that these students had been admitted into the university to study, not hired to teach or conduct research. Any teaching or research components that the students took on were part of their academic development, rather than economic. Graduate students at Brown University, as in many other institutions, are expected to teach throughout their graduate program. Then-Brown University Provost Robert Zimmer stated, “Teaching undergraduate students and conducting research are an integral part of the academic development for graduate students.” Given that some programs have certain teaching/research requirements in order to obtain their degree, these students were considered primarily “students” and nothing more. 

Other students that attempted to unionize were Northwestern University’s scholarship football players. The Chronicle of Higher Education shows a comparison between graduate student assistants and scholarship athletes. In plain, simple questions it demonstrates the difference how one group is seen only as students fulfilling the requirements for their degree and the other group is seen as employees of their institution. In 2015, the NLRB denied the claim for Northwestern’s football players to unionize and consider them university employees.

Shortly after, a new case was brought forward to once again determine the fate of graduate assistants. The NLRB invited students, universities, and unions to take part by submitting briefs. Even though many schools believed that it was a waste of time and it would be a lengthy process, the NLRB proceeded. The following year in The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, 364 NLRB No. 90 (2016), the NLRB overruled Brown in a 3-1 decision and determined that graduate assistants working in private institutions could in fact be employees of their institution and be permitted collective bargaining.

Given the constant back and forth within the National Labor Relations Board and the three frameworks of: 1) are they classified as students or employees, 2) are they perceived primarily as students or employees, and 3) do they have a right to collective bargaining, do you believe that they are to be considered students and that the teaching/researching aspects are part of their graduate degree requirements? Or should the students also be considered statutory employees with the option to unionize?

This post was authored by Manuelita "Nelly" Reyes, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio, and a student service specialist for the Graduate School at UTSA.

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Reader Comments (8)

I think a Student assistant should be paid, as well as anyone else who is doing something for college campus unless it involves an internship. The students that are on college campus are not High School students anymore, they are there because they want to better their future and peruse their degree in Higher Education. The students should be paid for any work they do on campus not be hired to go to school and work. Its an option. Students should have the option to unionize and be an employee of the campus.

April 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Redwine

I think it is important that students who are doing paid work be considered employees, and provided the same bargaining rights that other workers in their professional field are permitted within the particular state. It may be that students have a "special" status but that does not mean they are not also adults. In fact, college students are increasingly enrolling in college with previous professional experience and expertise; treating them as less than that does not respect this experience. Furthermore, given that many of these student-employee positions (teaching assistants or interns, for example) serve to further professionalize students, I would argue that treating them as employees is to their benefit.

April 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia King-Kostelac

As an individual providing a service (teaching, research, grading papers, etc.) I feel that they should be considered an employee no matter if their a student or not. I have had the opportunity to be an employee and a student. I was a part time graduate student and then I was hired as a full time employee for the university. The university saw me as an employee first and then a student, although the institution would encourage student to value their educations over any extra curricular activity. All students should have the right to collective bargaining, and unionize.

May 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTrenshae Gilbert

With the rise of adjunct professors and the use of teaching/graduate assistants (GAs) to teach undergraduates, I think this is an important conversation to have. While a graduate assistant's first priority is to be a student, universities do have employee-like expectations of them as well. From teaching classes to helping professors with research, there are many demands on a graduate assistant's time. While I do not think unionizing GAs would solve these challenges, it may make universities more aware of their demands. The other issue missing from this topic is funding. Universities are depending on GAs more because they are cheaper. Would re-evaluating funding for universities help address this issue?

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Severance

In the student Union we the graduate assistants are considered employees. I think an interesting take on this topic would be to look at what type of employee we are. This is a topic I bring up all the time to management. We are invited to some of the meetings of full-time staff. We manage teams and do enough work to be constituted as full-time staff but for some reason it still feels like we are undergraduate student employees. I like that Private institutions are starting to be recognized as employees. I would love to see how moving forward public institutions categorized Graduate assistants. We are students but there are also full-time staff member working full-time and going to class so where does that hierarchy wise and what benefits may we be entitled to?

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTarecka Payne

I personally think that graduate assistants should not only be considered as employees. We work for the university, we get paid more than student workers, we have a lot more responsibilities regardless of our student status. I think more opportunities should be given to us in the sense of the meetings we can attend, the information we are privy to, and other things that full time staff would have access to. Luckily, i'm blessed with a supervisor who makes sure I am as involved as possible as a graduate assistant. She makes me feel like part of the Student Life team as much as possible. I think we should have the option of having benefits because we are grown adults going through 2 maybe 3 classes as graduate students with rigorous work, but i am always afraid i'm going to get sick and need to go to the doctor and not be able to afford it. There needs to be better benefits to being a graduate assistant.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos Villarreal

This is something that students struggle with every day. Even on campus today GA's have a hard time distinguishing themselves as students or employees. Some graduate assistant get better parking while others are told their student status trumps their employee one. I think a great example that parallels well is the idea of a student manager. They are an employee, but they also a student, and yet they are still recognized as a student athlete. The many facets of students are going to continually grow and there needs to be better parameter around graduate student employment. The more students continue to get involved and the more they are encouraged to get involved will only make this problem worse. Students in higher education are told different things during their collegiate career. Some are told student employee, student come first. Some are told student athletes, athlete comes first. There needs to be a more defined parameter for students to fall into. Until this happens, the gray area will continue to concur student employees as well as make the matter worse.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Moya

Listening to everyone in class talk about being a graduate assistant makes me thankfully that I have a job that treats me as an employee and encourages me to go back to school. Our students are continuing their education and working for the institutions where they are paying for tuition. The least the campus can do is treat them as an employee. Graduate assistants are asked to grade papers and often teach courses, so why not offer them more benefits and opportunities to grow within the institution.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterApril Vasquez

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