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NLRB: Grad students cannot form unions

Ruling may affect organizing effort underway at Tufts

The National Labor Relations Board has decided that university graduate students who work for professors cannot organize as union workers, a case that could affect organizing students at Tufts University.

In a proceeding last week involving Brown University, the board ruled that graduate students who teach and conduct research on behalf of professors at private institutions are not employees. The ruling means they do not have the same rights as workers, and cannot form unions and bargain with their employers over wages and other workplace matters.

Yesterday, the board remanded a similar case involving Tufts back to the regional NLRB director ''for further consideration consistent with the Brown decision," said Roy Schoenfeld, deputy regional attorney for the board's regional office in Boston. ''So, basically, we have to find out from the parties whether there is any reason to do anything more with the case in light of the Brown decision."

Officials at Tufts University could not be reached to comment yesterday afternoon.

Joseph Ramsey, a graduate student at Tufts who is working on a doctorate in English and American literature, was disappointed.

''Essentially, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington has already overturned the precedent on which we based our case," said Ramsey. ''It's a slap in the face to graduate students who work late into the night as teachers, not as apprentices. The fact that they learn from their work does not mean the work they do is not employment."

Ramsey said graduate students at Tufts held a union election in April 2002, but the ballots were impounded by the labor board after the university appealed. He said there were about 500 graduate teaching assistants at Tufts who were interested in becoming a unit of Region 9-A of the United Auto Workers, but the votes were never released.

Phil Wheeler, an organizing official at the UAW, said the board's decision was politically motivated. He also said graduate students earn $6,000 to $16,000 per year even though they perform a significant amount of teaching and research for full professors.

''We still have the right to strike," said Wheeler, whose union has organized graduate teaching assistants at UMass-Amherst and several other public universities around the country. ''And if we have to strike for recognition, then we will do it."

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., said yesterday the petition the UAW filed on behalf of graduate teaching assistants at Tufts could be dismissed.

Last week's decision by the labor board will affect graduate students at private universities like Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Tufts. It will not affect graduate students at public colleges and universities, however. Only private employers and employees are impacted by the agency's rulings.

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at

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