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'You're reducing their autonomy,' AAUP files for private university graduate assistants' rights

The American Association of University Professors filed an amicus brief Feb. 29 arguing the board, which has authority over private employees, should overturn its 2004 Brown University decision.

The Brown University case labeled graduate assistants as university students rather than employees because their stipends were not compensation but financial aid.

“If somebody is an employee who is doing work for compensation, then that kind of worker’s compensation puts them in a category of being an employee under (the National Labor Relations Act),” said Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the AAUP.

“Just like other workplaces, (employees) should be able to choose whether to associate with their fellow workers in a way that is forming a union.”

According to the brief, graduate assistants engage in research from externally funded grants and perform services for the university in exchange for payment.

Lieberwitz said the AAUP wants the National Labor Relations Board to revert back to a previous decision it made about a New York University case.

“We think the NYU case is the better reasoned position and the more correct interpretation of what it means to be an employee under the National Labor Relations Act as a graduate assistant,” she said.

Jeffrey Hirsch, law professor and associate dean for academic affairs at UNC, is also an advocate for labor rights for graduate students.

“From the grad students’ perspective, lots of them are doing a lot of actual work for the University,” he said.

Labor rights would provide graduate assistants with a voice they can use to discuss terms and conditions with their employer, Hirsch said.

He said employers do not want to deal with unions — they do not want to bargain before setting wages or determining hours and workloads of their employees.

“You’re reducing their autonomy and this could potentially raise costs for them,” he said.

The decision will not affect UNC-system graduate assistants because under North Carolina law, public employees are prohibited from negotiating as a union with the state.

Lieberwitz said the AAUP would be a proponent of labor rights for employees of the university system.

“The AAUP’s position is that it would be a positive measure for the state to recognize rights to unionize and collectively bargain, including those rights specifically for faculty and graduate assistants,” she said.

Lieberwitz said she is cautiously optimistic the board might overturn the Brown University decision.

“The fact that the NLRB granted review for the case in Columbia University certainly indicates that the NLRB wants to reconsider the Brown University decision.”

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