The ruling came as a result of a petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia University and the United Automobile Workers, who had been seeking to represent the Columbia organization.
The ruling’s scope includes Duke University, where talk of unionization has been brewing for months, said Rashmi Joglekar, a third year Ph.D. candidate in toxicology.
Marcus Benning, president of Duke’s Graduate and Professional Student Council, said wage concerns have made unionization a popular idea.
“You don’t need to be stressed about paying your bills when you’re doing research,” he said.
Joglekar said there have been concerns about the difference in wages between humanities and STEM students.
“If you’re struggling financially it’s hard to see your fellow students making different wages than you do,” she said.
In 2000 the NLRB ruled that graduate assistants were employees, but reversed its ruling four years later on a case at Brown University.
“If anything, while universities are trying to sort out what this means for them, the federal government needs to be aware of how legal policy that changes every decade is very impractical for universities to try to adjust to,” Benning said.
Daniel Bowling, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke, said politics are partially to blame for the change.
“Throughout the 80-some year history of the labor act, there has been a fundamental disagreement, usually divided along partisan lines, on the breadth and scope of its coverage,” Bowling said. “Over the past couple of decades much of this dispute has focused on workers in higher education and whether they should enjoy the same rights as workers in more traditional, industrial settings.”
Union organizers will have to file a petition with signatures from at least 30 percent of eligible graduate students to the NLRB, which would hold a secret ballot election. Only after a majority vote could they collectively bargain with the university.
Jay Schalin, director of policy analysis at the conservative-leaning Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said the politics of unionization could harm students who are not members.
“I think you’re not only going to have an adversarial situation between the school and the students, you’re also going to have an adversarial position between politicized students and students who are just focused on getting their degree,” he said.
The 2004 Brown case determined graduate assistants cannot be employees because their relationship with the university is educational.
“Nobody becomes a grad student to become a grad student,” Schalin said. “They become graduate students to educate themselves for future employment. It’s more along the lines of a paid temporary internship.”
The UNC system is governed by state policy, which restricts unions. But Priscilla Vaz, a geography Ph.D. candidate at UNC and president of the graduate student committee in her department, said graduate students could benefit from collective organization across the university.
“What power do we really have to negotiate?” Vaz said.
But graduate assistants don’t pay tuition, a benefit Schalin said is overlooked.
“By the time you add it all up, the actual reward these people are getting is like $70,000 a year or something,” Schalin said.