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Graduate Students Await Columbia Unionization Ruling

As the New York regional office of the National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on March 31 on whether graduate students at Columbia have the right to form a union, graduate students at Harvard say a ruling in favor of unionization rights might prompt interest in a similar movement in Cambridge.

If the NLRB ultimately rules in support of the graduate students, it would reverse an earlier 2004 ruling under the Bush administration that allowed universities to ban unions among graduate students, arguing that they are primarily students and any work they do is part of their degree program.

Some graduate students at Harvard are hopeful that the NLRB will vote in favor of the Columbia students.

“I can’t predict whether it would lead to a serious public unionization effort here or at Princeton, for example, or not, but I certainly think it would make it more likely,” said John Gee, a graduate student in the History department.

Some graduate students, especially those who had been part of unions at other schools, are often surprised when they discover that Harvard has no such infrastructure, according to Jonathan J. Booth, a graduate student in the History department.

John M. Nicoludis, a graduate student in the Chemistry department, said he has learned through conversations with his peers that many would support a union.

“This would, depending on the decision, be a huge change in how universities interact with graduate students and would change what being a graduate student means,” he said. “I think some graduate students at Harvard are starting to wonder how a union could support their needs during graduate school.”

Legal experts say it is difficult to predict how the NLRB will rule, though some hope it will reverse the 2004 decision.

“I would imagine that the current NLRB will support the rights of graduate student teaching assistants to collectively bargain,” said William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the NLRB under President Bill Clinton and a professor emeritus of law at Stanford. 

James A. Gross, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell, agreed that the NLRB should rule in favor of unionization rights.

Supporters of the 2004 decision, meanwhile, argue that allowing the formation of unions puts academic freedom at risk. In a press statement, Columbia officials wrote, “Our graduate students are scholars in training whose teaching and research are an integral part of their doctoral studies. As the N.L.R.B. found in the Brown University case, we believe that treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience.”

—Staff writer William C. Skinner can be reached at wskinner@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @wskinner.

—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at jill.steinman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on twitter @jillsteinman.

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