Graduate Assistants Covered by the National Labor Relations Act and Can Vote In NLRB Election

Matthew Robbins

In 2004, the Bush-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) took away the right of graduate assistants to vote for representation by a union. In Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90, the NLRB now holds that graduate assistants at private universities are employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Graduate assistants can petition to be represented by a union.

Graduate assistants are paid by universities to teach and do research. They must perform assigned work to get paid and can be terminated. They work 15 to 20 hours per week. They do not fall within any of the exceptions to the definition of “employee” in the NLRA.

The Bush NLRB excluded graduate assistants from representation on the basis that their relationship to the university is “primarily educational.” Yet, most universities could not function without low paid graduate assistants to perform teaching and research functions.

The NLRB now holds that because they have an employer-employee relationship, they are covered by the NLRA. It does not matter what other relationship they have to the university. Graduate assistants now join interns and residents who have had the right to organize since 1999.

This decision applies to private universities. Public universities are governed by state law. In Wisconsin Act 10 took away the right to organize for public employees including graduate assistants in the University of Wisconsin system.