By MARC PARRY, Staff writer Thursday, July 12, 2007
ALBANY -- Labor activists broke out banners and balloons Wednesday to celebrate a ruling that allows some graduate student research assistants to unionize.
They rallied at the University at Albany to cheer a decision that directly affects about 2,000 employees of the Research Foundation of the State University of New York working in Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse.
The private nonprofit foundation administers outside grants for sponsored research programs at SUNY. The employees affected by the case are enrolled at SUNY but draw their paychecks from the foundation, a union leader said.
The ruling by the National Labor Relations Board focused on whether the student assistants have a fundamentally economic or educational relationship to their employer.
The board reversed the decision of a regional director who had ruled the research assistants are not employees of the foundation, meaning they would not qualify for collective-bargaining rights.
Graduate students have shouldered more and more of universities' day-to-day work over the past 20 years. The new ruling represents "a rare expansion of bargaining rights for graduate students under the current labor board, appointed by President Bush," according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which closely tracks college labor issues.
"It's a victory for graduate students across the country," Arindam Mandal of Communications Workers of America Local 1104 said through a megaphone during a noon rally that drew fewer than 20 people.
The decision contrasts with a major ruling handed down by the NLRB in a related case three years ago. The board ruled then that graduate teaching assistants at Brown University lack collective-bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act because they are students rather than employees.
One Cornell University labor expert argued that the new development opens the door to an appeal of the original ruling and is "the kind of decision that the board will regret because they have muddied their own waters quite significantly."
"People might think it's a small decision, but I think it's an important decision because it lays bare the contradictions in the earlier decision," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions is a loose-knit coalition of labor unions in the USA and Canada that represents graduate students employed as teachers, researchers, and administrative staff.