Date August 23, 2016

After NLRB decision, Brown grad students have right to explore whether or not to unionize

Ruling by the National Labor Relations Board presents graduate student assistants as employees.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the wake of today’s decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that ruled that graduate students at Columbia University are employees and have the right to unionize, Brown University leaders say they will comply with the decision and support discussions among graduate students as they explore whether or not unionization is right for them.

The case before the NLRB centered on a petition from the United Auto Workers to represent graduate students at Columbia University. The primary question before the NLRB, which granted review to the case Dec. 23, 2015, was whether graduate student teaching and research assistants at private universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

The board's 3 to 1 ruling Aug. 23, 2016, in the Columbia case recognizes student assistants as statutory employees, a decision that applies by extension to graduate students at other private universities. The decision reversed the NLRB’s previous Brown decision, a 2004 ruling that graduate students at Brown University were primarily students — not employees — and therefore could not unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.

“The Brown University Board held that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because they ‘are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university,’” today’s NLRB decision stated. “We disagree. The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

Earlier this year, Brown University joined eight other prominent research universities in filing a brief that urged the NLRB to continue to recognize graduate assistants as students, not as employees.

In response to today’s NLRB decision, Brown University issued the following statement:

"The National Labor Relations Board has ruled in a case concerning whether or not graduate students at Columbia University — and by extension other private universities — are employees and eligible to form a union. Brown University will comply with this decision and support graduate students as they consider whether or not it is in their best interest to choose, or not, to form a union and bargain collectively.

"In recent months, the University has worked to ensure a robust, balanced conversation among our students, faculty and staff about the potential implications of unionization. As we review the Aug. 23, 2016, NLRB ruling in detail, we will promote an informed and balanced discussion to assist our graduate students in determining a path forward.

"Graduate education has been central to Brown’s mission for more than a century, and we remain fully committed to strengthening support for and engagement of our more than 2,200 graduate students on campus. We expect a constructive deliberative process in the coming weeks and months." 

For Brown’s graduate students to unionize, a labor union would need support from at least 30 percent of the eligible graduate assistants to file a petition with the NLRB to represent the students at Brown. The University would be notified of a petition, and a vote by eligible students would be required to determine whether graduate student assistants at Brown approve union representation.

Earlier this summer, Brown Provost Richard Locke wrote to the campus community  to emphasize the importance of graduate students to Brown’s mission and to encourage an informed and balanced discussion on the merits of  unionization for graduate students and the University community. The University also launched a website with frequently asked questions and other resources for members of the Brown campus seeking information on graduate student unionization.