NLRB Rules: Some Grad Students Are Employees

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In a major victory for the unionizing organization known as Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP), the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that certain graduate students at Penn are indeed employees when they are teaching and acting as research assistants. Dorothy Moore-Duncan, the regional director, also directed that an election be held sometime in early 2003 to determine if a majority of those graduate students want to be represented by a union.

GET-UP called on the administration to “accept the board’s decision, engage in an election campaign free of intimidation, and negotiate in good faith once GET-UP wins the election.” It had already filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against Penn in October for “threatening to change the tax status of graduate-student employees if they vote for union representation and for blaming GET-UP for the University’s failure to provide normal and routine stipend increases.” The University has denied those charges.

When the decision was announced, Penn’s administration responded that it would appeal the regional director’s decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington.

“We maintain that our graduate students are students, and not employees,” said Penn President Judith Rodin CW’66 and Provost Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, in a joint statement. “However, we recognize that the regional NLRB has reached a different conclusion. Like our colleagues at Brown, Tufts, and Columbia, we believe that the issue of graduate students ‘as employees’ warrants further legal review.”

After different NLRB regional directors ruled that some graduate students at New York University, Brown, Tufts, Columbia, and Cornell can legally be considered employees, the administrations of Brown, Tufts, and Columbia appealed. Cornell’s eligible graduate students voted overwhelmingly in October not to be represented by a union.

The decision specifically excluded research assistants from the Natural Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Biomedical Graduate Studies graduate groups, as well as teaching assistants and research assistants from professional schools and graduate students paid on an hourly basis. Nearly 1,000 graduate students are eligible to vote on unionization.

“The complicated decision arbitrarily divides and discriminates among graduate students in determining who would be eligible to vote and who would not,” stated Rodin and Barchi. It “includes some professional masters-degree students in the proposed bargaining unit” while excluding other, comparable students. “Even the regional director recognizes that there is no basis for the distinction drawn between Ph.D. candidates in the natural sciences (excluded) and the social sciences (included),” they added, noting that her profession of being “compelled to follow the NYU case” was coupled with a concession that she would “otherwise agree with the University’s contention that Natural Science [research assistants] should be treated the same way as other RA’s.”

“The decision makes no sense for graduate students at Penn,” Rodin and Barchi concluded. “We hope that the students themselves, like their counterparts at Cornell, would come to the same conclusion.”

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