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In a much-anticipated decision with national implications, the federal National Labor Relations Board this summer dealt a devastating blow to a United Auto Workers–backed effort aimed at organizing a graduate-student union at Brown. The board reversed a four-year-old precedent by ruling in July that the University’s graduate teaching assistants are primarily students, not employees, and therefore have no legal standing as a collective-bargaining unit.

The UAW had been seeking to represent about 450 Brown graduate students working as research assistants in the social sciences and humanities, as teaching assistants, and as proctors. The 3–2 vote fell along party lines, with the Republican-appointed majority arguing that teaching-assistant stipends at Brown should be considered financial aid rather than pay for work. Pointing out that the graduate stipend is the same whether or not a student is a teaching assistant, the NLRB also reasoned that because teaching is required in most Brown graduate-degree programs, it is primarily an academic endeavor. “There is a significant risk,” the majority wrote, “and indeed a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process.”

The ruling is a victory for President Ruth Simmons, who has argued for the past three years that unionization would contaminate the all-important teacher-student relationship in the Graduate School. It is also a triumph for other private universities, for whom the decision sets a precedent, and especially for schools such as Yale and Penn, which have graduate-student unionization cases pending before the NLRB. (The decision does not apply to public universities, which are governed by state law.)

In a telephone interview with the BAM, Provost Robert Zimmer said that the ruling will actually help graduate students flourish at Brown by ensuring that academics remain the school’s top priority and that teaching continues as “an intrinsic component” of the academic experience. “The kind of relationship that we believe should exist between students and the University,” he said, “is an academic relationship.”

The move by the Washington, D.C.–based board was a blow to the students who led the union drive. “The spirit of the law has been totally undermined,” says Sheyda Jahanbani, a PhD student in history. Calling the ruling politically motivated, she says it was hypocritical for a progressive university such as Brown to appeal to a board controlled by appointees of President George W. Bush. Zimmer rejected any political reading of the decision, explaining that the University turned to the NLRB because it alone had the jurisdiction to act on the unionization effort.

In a minority opinion, the two Democratic members of the NLRB sided with the union, writing that graduate-student collective bargaining works well at some other universities. Their colleagues, they asserted, wrongly see “the academic world as somehow removed from the economic realm that labor law addresses—as if there was no room in the ivory tower for a sweatshop.” They added, “The developments that brought graduate students to the Board … will have to be addressed elsewhere, if the majority’s decision stands. That result does American universities no favors.”

The drive to form the union at Brown began three years ago, when a majority of graduate assistants voted to hold an election to decide whether to join the UAW. Students organizing the drive said they wanted leverage in decisions about pay, teaching load, and health insurance. The NLRB’s regional director in Boston then gave the go-ahead to hold the election, basing her decision on a precedent set in 2000, when the national board, composed at the time of two Democrats and one Republican, ruled unanimously that teaching assistants at New York University are employees with the right to bargain collectively.

The affiliation vote was held on campus in December 2001, with 90 percent of eligible Brown graduate students casting ballots. But after Brown appealed the regional NLRB’s approval, the ballots were impounded before they could be tallied, pending the national board’s decision. Now that the vote has been declared moot, the ballots will remain uncounted.

Jahanbani says that graduate unionization at Brown is effectively dead. She concedes that the administration gained support when it increased the base teaching-assistant stipend from $12,500 a semester to $16,000 as part of the Plan for Academic Enrichment. “That bought a lot of people off,” Jahanbani notes, adding that without a union, teaching assistants still have no power to bargain over such things as pay raises and health insurance.

Graduate students will be watching the effect of the ruling on New York University, the only private school to have signed a contract with graduate assistants. The NYU agreement, which increased stipends by as much as 40 percent, is up for renewal next year. In a prepared statement, an NYU spokesman noted that the school was gratified by the ruling and would take a close look at it before negotiating with its graduate students again.

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