Some of America’s top universities have banded together to argue against a
United Auto Workers (UAW) case calling for the unionization of graduate students who act as teaching and research assistants at Columbia University.
The nine schools filed an amicus brief — a legal document filed by a party with strong interest in the subject matter — asking for the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to consider graduate teaching assistants as students rather than employees.
Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Stanford filed the brief in support of a case involving Columbia University.
Their main argument is that allowing graduate students collective bargaining powers would inevitably infringe on academic freedom.
The brief cited an example of how academic decisions could become mired in union politics if teaching assistants were allowed to unionize.
It describes a hypothetical situation where a professor wants to make a change to the format of their final exam.
Several graduate assistants are assigned to teach and grade 15-student sections of a major survey course in American history. The past practice reveals that the final exam has always been a multiple-choice test. The professor leading the course decides to change the final exam to essay questions. The teaching assistants union files a grievance under the contract claiming that the requirement to grade essay questions impermissibly explains the assistants’ workload and violates past practice.
The NLRB ruled in 2004 that graduate assistants are primarily students, not employees. However, there has been a growing movement to re-classify graduate teaching and research assistants as employees.
“We help the University run,” Anna Jurkevics, a member of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Student Organisation, told the Yale Daily News. “We’re treated partially as employees, but then we’re not acknowledged as employees.”
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