NLRB Official Blocks Unionization of New School’s Graduate-Student Employees

A regional official of the National Labor Relations Board has held that New School students who work as graduate teaching or research assistants are ineligible to unionize as employees.

Students attempting to organize a union there had expressed hope that the institution’s opposition to their unionization would soften in the wake of a labor accord at nearby New York University, which abandoned its own fight against the unionization of graduate students in 2013 and in March agreed to a contract hailed by labor organizers.

The end of the labor conflict at NYU, however, had the effect of bringing an end to a battle before the NLRB that represented the best chance of overturning a board precedent seen as preventing the unionization of graduate students, a 2004 decision involving teaching assistants at Brown University.

In a decision handed down on Thursday, Karen P. Fernbach, a regional director in the NLRB’s New York City office, said she remained constrained by the Brown decision’s holding that graduate teaching assistants at private universities are primarily students, not employees, and therefore are not covered by federal labor law.

Although the working conditions of the New School students seeking to unionize are somewhat different from those of the students who had sought to unionize at Brown, those differences are not substantial enough to hold that the Brown precedent does not apply to them, Ms. Fernbach said.

Ms. Fernbach’s decision was the second this year in which she has cited the Brown precedent in rejecting graduate students’ petitions to unionize. She similarly ruled against such union organizers at Columbia University in a February ruling. The organizers at the New School have the option of appealing her decision to the full labor-relations board.

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