In a much anticipated decision, the National Labor Relations Board on August 23 ruled 3-1 that Columbia University graduate students who perform teaching assistant and research assistant services at the university in connection with their studies are employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act. The Board’s decision clears a path for private university graduate assistants throughout the US to unionize.

The Board reached its decision by overruling its 2000 decision involving Brown University, in which it held that graduate assistants were not employees covered by the Act and could not unionize. The Board reasoned in its Brown University decision that it would not exercise jurisdiction over relationships which are “primarily educational.”  The Board in Columbia University, however, concluded that its prior decision was wrongly decided and the fact there is an additional, non-economic academic relationship does not mean the Board may disregard the employment relationship protected by the Act.

Unsurprisingly, the lone dissenter was the sole Republican Board Member, Philip Miscimarra.  Member Miscimarra also was the lone dissenter in two additional decisions issued by the Board on August 23 also involving universities, Saint Xavier University and Seattle University.  In those decisions, the Board found that the universities’ part-time faculty are covered by the Act but that faculty in these religiously-affiliated universities’ religious studies and theology departments could not be included in a unit of faculty eligible to unionize.