ITHACA, NY – In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that graduate students did not qualify as employees. One of the key impacts of that decision was that grad students were barred from forming labor unions.

Today, the NLRB overturned that decision, which will pave the way forward for many organizations that have been working toward forming such unions. The push for unionizing has gained steam in recent years, with grad students expressing frustration on issues including lack of job security and low wages given their workloads.

Earlier this year, Cornell broke with several of its Ivy League peers by pledging to work with Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU) to initiate a “fair and expeditious” union election process.

CGSU released the following statement regarding the NLRB decision:

[su_note]Cornell Graduate Students United, the union for graduate workers at Cornell University, is heartened and encouraged by the decision of the National Labor Relations Board to formally recognize private sector graduate students as employees under federal labor law.

The decision in Columbia University to reverse a controversial ruling of the George W. Bush-era board will add momentum to the large-scale graduate organizing effort at Cornell’s Ithaca and Geneva, N.Y., campuses and will help build on CGSU’s positive and productive relationship with the Cornell administration.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “This is a great day for workers. Graduate employees at private institutions, just like their peers in public universities across the country, deserve the right to organize to have a real say over their wages and conditions. The National Labor Relations Board took a hard look at the flawed reasoning in Brown and concluded, rightly, that grads should be afforded exactly the same workplace rights as their colleagues.

“The truth is graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together—without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held. The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.

“At Cornell, Columbia, Chicago, Brown and hundreds of other campuses, graduate employees are standing up to have a say over their work lives; this board decision recognizes and validates their fight to win a meaningful seat at the bargaining table and for the fruits of those negotiations to be protected by law.”

Ibrahim Issa, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, said “I congratulate the graduate workers at Columbia University, and I believe that this decision will help improve grad workers’ lives. The ability to unionize will help tighten our graduate community and create a common platform where we can work to defend our rights.”

Maria Sapar, a Cornell doctoral student in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, said “I’m excited about this decision because I want a union here at Cornell. I want all graduate workers to be guaranteed a positive experience, and I’m confident that the graduate worker union is the best path to get us there.”

The NLRB decision also triggers the election provisions in CGSU’s historic pre-election code of conduct agreement with Cornell, signed in May, which set out a path toward a campuswide union election and a first contract for around 2,500 graduate employees. A pioneering joint Union-Management Committee, comprising CGSU members, union staff and representatives of the administration, has already held several meetings to ensure that the union-university relationship remains respectful and that the right to choose union representation is protected.

CGSU is affiliated with the New York State United Teachers and, nationally, with the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers. The AFT is the oldest national graduate employee union, representing 25,000 graduate workers on 22 campuses across nine states. The AFT submitted an amicus brief in the case before the board—Columbia University—that led to today’s reversal of the precedent established in the board’s 2004 Brown University case.

NYSUT President Karen Magee, who is an AFT vice president, said: “NYSUT applauds the board’s decision and is proud that graduate workers at Cornell now have one less hurdle to be recognized for the labor they undertake every day. We congratulate CGSU’s colleagues at Columbia and the New School for making sure this important case was heard. Grads at private schools across New York state are coming together so their voices can be heard, and we’re behind them every step of the way.”[/su_note]

(Photo courtesy of CGSU’s Facebook page)

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.