Dear, student. Congrats! You’re admitted. As an employee?
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 10:39AM
David H.K. Nguyen

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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