- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Graduate students at private U.S. universities can unionize, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday in a decision that could upend the balance of power on campuses and deliver tens of thousands of new members to labor unions.

Critics called the decision politically motivated, warned of student teachers halting classes by going on strike, and said the ruling will make it even tougher to cut college costs and revamp higher education while students themselves are demanding reforms.

But labor advocates cheered, saying universities have been maltreating graduate students for years. Students at some of the country’s top universities were already vowing to organize on their campuses, saying they would fight for more pay and better working conditions.

“We hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the [National Labor Relations] Act,” the board wrote in its majority opinion.

The NLRB ruling applies to graduate and undergraduate students — anyone who is compensated for work for a college or university. But most of the attention has gone to graduate students, who are often pushed to teach classes or conduct research as part of their degree programs.

Those arrangements are part of what unions call the “corporatization” of higher education — a blurring of the line as schools’ budgets skyrocket, and as they search to cut costs, expand their campuses and maximize their financial footprint.

The question facing the NLRB was whether the school-student relationship is special or whether the students, even as they earn degrees, are taking on the role of any other employee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees education policy, said the NLRB got the relationship backward, “completely confusing the entire reason students enroll in the first place.”

“If I’m earning a BS or an MBA from Union University in Jackson or an advanced engineering degree from Vanderbilt, my primary purpose and benefit during my time there is to gain the skills I need to launch myself into the career and the future I want — not to garner wages as an employee of the university,” he said.

He called the ruling “a shameless ploy to increase union membership” and said the result could be that schools cancel student-teaching programs rather than face new hassles.

The NLRB case arose out of Columbia University in New York, where graduate students tried to organize in 2014 but were rejected by the school. The students appealed to the NLRB to settle the dispute.

With Tuesday’s ruling, the students said they would soon hold a vote to choose a union alignment. The students said one of their chief priorities is to stop Columbia from changing their health care and dental benefit plans without their approval.

Graduate students say their efforts bring in billions of dollars in research money nationwide, and they provide the teachers that staff many classrooms.

More than two dozen public universities already recognize student unions, as does New York University, a private school that voluntarily agreed to deal with a student union.

Columbia University argued to the NLRB that the experiences haven’t been good, with students striking over their workloads and other aspects of school life. The NLRB, though, said schools will have to adjust and expressed confidence that both sides can work out problems at the bargaining table.

“Labor disputes are a fact of economic life,” the board said.

The ruling overturns a 2004 decision that found graduate students were not employees for the purposes of labor law.

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and former college president, said the board’s reversal stretches the bounds of federal law and will set back efforts to reform higher education.

“The ruling misunderstands both the nature of representative government and the teacher-student relationship: labor laws should be debated by the American people’s representatives in Congress and educators should put students ahead of politics,” Mr. Sasse said in a statement.

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