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Graduate students hoping to unionize at private institutions had for years been counting on a National Labor Relations Board ruling to set a new precedent for their legal status. The decision was expected in a case involving graduate students at New York University who wished to vote to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers. If the board ruled in favor of the students, it could have effectively reversed a 2004 ruling that said graduate student teaching assistants at private universities did not have a right to collective bargaining.

But graduate students organizers are now regrouping after a surprise announcement from NYU and the United Auto Workers late last month: That they would withdraw their case from the NLRB, and work together to allow graduate student teaching assistants to hold a union vote mediated by the American Arbitration Association.

Having hoped to point to an NLRB decision identifying graduate students as “employees” with collective bargaining rights instead of primarily as students, organizers at other campuses are digesting the development -- and appetites for a similar deal are still unclear. Meanwhile, labor experts praised the deal as a model for other campuses.

"This decision definitely changes the terrain for us," said Molly Cunningham, a graduate student in anthropology and student organizer at the University of Chicago. That campus, known for its relatively large graduate population, has a strong, independent -- but still formally unrecognized -- union. Graduate Students United has achieved gains since it was formed in 2007, including doubling per-quarter pay for teaching assistants, to $3,000. But legally speaking, it has no collective bargaining power -- something an NLRB decision in favor of NYU students, if it had been followed by a vote to join the union, could have changed.

The union’s course to recognition is a lot more “open-ended” now that that decision isn’t coming, Cunningham said. “[We] have a lot of collective decision-making processes to work through as we work out the implications.”

A spokesman for Chicago said the university had no comment on whether or not it would consider a deal such as NYU’s.

Graduate students at Yale University involved in the union drive there also were looking to the NYU case for recognition of their legal status. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization, affiliated with the UNITE HERE International union and the Federation of University Employees, was founded in 1991 and has sought legal recognition since.

Aaron Greenberg, a Ph.D. candidate in political science and chair of the Yale graduate student union, called the NYU development “very exciting for graduate students at private universities seeking the right to collectively bargain about their working conditions.”

Calling the NYU administration’s deal with the United Auto Workers “collaborative in nature,” despite years of relations between the two groups “seeming broken,” he added: “I think it’s really promising.”

Greenberg said other members of the union shared his enthusiasm. He declined to comment, however, on whether such a deal might ever work at Yale, and what he thought about the deal’s stipulation, at NYU’s request, that it applies to teaching assistants – not research assistants.

“It’s going to be really important to watch and see what happens at NYU," he said. A union vote, in which NYU has pledged to remain neutral, is set for next week.

A call for comment on the NYU deal to Yale’s public relations staff was not returned.

Both NYU and the graduate student union had reasons to settle. The NLRB, which is currently majority Democrat, likely would have sided with the students. But for the students, waiting for a decision meant more time in limbo, and a hypothetical future ruling by the NLRB against graduate students could have challenged their legitimacy once again. But practically speaking, labor experts said there’s no reason the NYU model can’t be applied to other campuses, and among graduate students backed by traditional education unions.

Craig Smith, director of higher education at the American Federation of Teachers, called the deal “welcome news that is long overdue.”

It has additional implications for the NLRB going forward, he said via email: “This decision should be a clear signal to the NLRB that they should reverse the 2004 ruling regarding the employee status of graduate teaching and research assistants.  Through their unions, graduate employees all over this country have had a meaningful voice in university decision-making in the public sector. Why shouldn’t the same be true for graduate employees in the private sector?”

William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, called the deal an apparent “win-win” in an email. NYU’s managerial neutrality provision immediately curbs workplace tensions, and it could save both sides money in that it bypasses common “protracted legal battles” before the NLRB over who belongs in the bargaining unit and who doesn’t.

So long as there is a “frank and principled dialogue between the parties and willingness to compromise,” Herbert said, there’s “little question” NYU’s model could work for other campuses.

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