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A regional National Labor Relations Board office rejected Columbia University graduate student workers’ petition to hold a union election, saying it’s constrained by a precedent against graduate student worker unions. The NLRB has historically gone back and forth on graduate student worker unions, but such unions largely have been blocked (unless private institutions voluntarily recognize them) since a 2004 decision regarding Brown University established that graduate students are students -- not workers -- and therefore not entitled to collective bargaining. The new regional ruling doesn’t necessarily preclude a Columbia union in the future, however, since the NLRB recently indicated that it will again reconsider graduate student unions in a pending case regarding the New School.

Columbia students want to affiliate with the United Autoworkers, as do their counterparts at the New School. New York University graduate student workers already are represented by the UAW, since the university chose to recognize the union in 2013. William Herbert, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College at the City University of New York, said it’s probable that the union will petition for a review of the regional decision regarding Columbia, the process by which the New School case ended up before the NLRB. The two cases could be decided together, he said.