Graduate teaching and research assistants at Polytechnic Institute of New York University on Thursday filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking union representation. The petition would create a distinct bargaining unit for the approximately 600 assistants who work at the institute, which merged with NYU in 2008. While wages, job security and health insurance were mentioned as concerns, the chief issue cited was lab safety, according to a statement released by the United Auto Workers, with which many graduate student unions are affiliated.
Efforts to organize graduate students at NYU have encountered a rocky road, and this latest bid to unionize looks as though it will meet similar resistance at NYU-Poly. Reiterating previous arguments made by NYU, Kathleen Hamilton, a spokeswoman for NYU-Poly, cited precedent established by the NLRB, which held that graduate, teaching and research assistants at private universities are students, not employees. "We admitted these men and women as students; we didn’t hire them as employees," she said in a statement. "So we don’t think unionization and collective bargaining is the right framework for a relationship between a university and its graduate students." (The UAW is also trying to organize teaching assistants at the main campus of NYU -- and has filed for an election of that unit. The university is opposing the move.)
Different iterations of the NLRB have ruled on the matter in different ways. In 2000, the NLRB held that NYU's graduate assistants were employees, which opened the door to NYU's graduate students to collectively bargain. Unions for graduate students are more common at public institutions, where teaching and research assistants are among the 45,000 higher education employees unionized by the UAW. In 2004, another version of the NLRB overturned the original 2000 ruling. NYU graduate students called strikes in 2005 and 2006 in an unsuccessful effort to force NYU to continue to recognize the union.