Background Information About Graduate Student Assistants And
The National Labor Relations Act


Why are we hearing about unionization this year?

Last year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students engaged in paid assistantships were “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) who may unionize and collectively bargain with their universities over the terms of these assistantships. This decision overrules decades of legal precedent and marks a fundamental shift from the way the NLRB has traditionally viewed the relationship between graduate student assistants and their universities.

The NLRB decision was not unanimous – there is a lengthy dissenting opinion that offers a counterpoint to this new approach. Indeed, this new interpretation could yet be reconsidered by the current members of the NLRB or by a federal court.


Isn’t teaching and research part of the graduate student assistants’ academic program? What role would a union play in the students’ academic programs?

Washington University believes that first and foremost, graduate student assistants are students. However, the NLRB now holds that when a student receives compensation for performing services such as teaching or research, the student is an employee who would be eligible for union representation. In a semester or term in which the student is not paid for teaching or research, the student would not be eligible for union representation. Students studying at a university with a union would float in and out of “employee” status – during some academic terms they would be represented by the union and in others they would be free to work directly with faculty without regard to the provisions of any collective bargaining agreement.


Do I need a union to get the University to respond to any concerns I may have?

No. There are a number of organizations on campus that regularly communicate directly with the administration on issues of interest to graduate students. Washington University has a long history of working collaboratively with graduate students to address their concerns, and many significant enhancements have been made as a result of student feedback.


If I am interested in union representation, is there any deadline for organizing?

No. You can choose to share any concerns you may have directly with the University, assess its response, and still remain free to seek union representation at some later time. Many employees who are eligible to organize decide to first attempt to work out any issues directly with their employer, rather than paying a union to raise those same issues because once a union is elected, it is difficult to remove even if the union is not delivering the results the employees wanted.


How can students learn more about varying views on unionization?

Two of the briefs filed with the NLRB in connection with the Columbia University case provide differing opinions on graduate student unionization. One brief was submitted by a group of Ivy League and peer institutions (Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Stanford University, and Yale University), the other by the AAUP (the American Association of University Professors). PDFs of these briefs are available here and here.

In addition, the NLRB’s August 23, 2016 decision in the Columbia University case contains both a majority and a dissenting opinion further discussing these differing views about graduate student unionization. A PDF of the NLRB decision with the majority and dissenting opinions is available here.