By: Abigail Cahak

On December 11, 2013, graduate student assistants of New York University and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU became the only such unionized student assistants of a private university when they voted in favor of representation by two United Auto Worker locals.

The Long Road to Certification

The UAW’s efforts to represent NYU’s graduate students have spanned over a decade.  In a 2000 decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in the UAW’s favor when it found that NYU’s graduate student assistants were “employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act. Following the subsequent election, the UAW was certified as the graduate student assistants’ exclusive bargaining representative. Shortly thereafter, the UAW and NYU negotiated a first contract which was set to expire in 2005.

However, in a 2004 decision involving similar organizing efforts at Brown University, the NLRB returned to its pre-2000 precedent, finding that graduate student assistants are not “employees” protected by the NLRA. Thus, upon expiration of the first contract, NYU refused to bargain for a successor agreement.

In spite of the NLRB’s reversal, the UAW filed an election petition with the NLRB once more in May 2010. The petition was dismissed twice by the NLRB Regional Director–citing the 2004 Brown University decision of the Board –and the UAW petitioned for NLRB review. In June 2012, the NLRB granted the petition and sought briefing to determine the status of graduate student assistants yet again.

In a final plot twist, in November 2013–while the UAW’s election petition was pending before the NLRB– the parties reached a voluntary agreement. The agreement required the UAW to withdraw its pending petition in exchange for the university’s promise to remain neutral and not engage in electioneering during the campaign. The parties further agreed to a December 2013 election monitored by the American Arbitration Association (AAA).

On December 10-11, 2013, approximately one-half of the 1,200 graduate student assistants eligible to vote actually cast their ballots. AAA certified the UAW locals as their bargaining representative, citing a UAW victory of garnering 98% of the votes cast.

What Does this Mean for University Employers?

The voluntary agreement by the parties deprived the NLRB of an opportunity to once more change position on the issue of graduate student assistant coverage under the NLRA. The fact that the Board granted the UAW’s petition to hear the matter and sought briefing from interested parties indicates that the Brown University decision was vulnerable to being overruled.  Notwithstanding NYU’s voluntary agreement, it is unlikely we have heard the last from the NLRB on this issue.

It is also quite likely that unions will put pressure on private universities to follow NYU’s lead and remain neutral during organizing campaigns for graduate student assistants, especially those schools with a history of campus organizing efforts.