WASHINGTON (AP) â€” For four years, New York University graduate student LaDawn Haglund's life has been a whirlwind of preparing lessons for the sociology class she teaches twice a week and working on her dissertation about sweatshops in Latin America.
At the same time, she has tried to convince NYU administrators that they're running something of a sweatshop of their own: the low pay, high costs for housing and inadequate health benefits that graduate student-teachers like her face.
``They always say, `Our doors are open,''' Haglund said. ``We come, and we talk. Then they just don't do anything.''
A National Labor Relations Board decision might change that for Haglund and thousands of other graduate students in private universities who do double duty as teachers or researchers.
The board recognized their status as workers and their right to organize and bargain as a union. Wednesday's landmark decision makes NYU the first private American university subject to collective bargaining with graduate assistants.
``We will not deprive workers ... of their fundamental statutory rights to organize and bargain with their employer, simply because they are also students,'' the board said in its unanimous ruling.
``It's huge,'' said Carlos Aramayo, a 25-year-old Yale University history graduate student who teaches 80 to 100 undergraduates a year. ``We are employees. We are providing a service to the university.''
The federal ruling does not apply to public universities, which have about two dozen bargaining units nationwide, because the primary labor law enforced by the board applies only to the private sector. Public university workers fall under state laws, but 21 states have ``right-to-work'' laws that allow workers to hold jobs without joining unions or paying dues.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor confederation, said the NLRB decision ``underscores what the graduate workers have known all along: their long hours spent grading papers, teaching classes and holding office hours is real work, done by real employees of the university.''
He said in a statement that 30,000 graduate teachers already have joined unions.
The ruling upholds a regional decision in favor of the 1,500 New York University graduate assistants who voted this year on whether to unionize. The votes have yet to be counted because of a dispute between the students and university officials.
Whether NYU approves a union, the reversal of a two-decade-old precedent gives another class of students the right to organize. Last year, the board extended similar rights to medical interns.
College officials' rebuke of the decision was sharp.
``They have shown a serious lack of understanding of graduate education,'' said John Beckman, NYU's spokesman. ``These graduate assistants are first and foremost students. They are admitted as students, not recruited as employees.''
Yale University, where graduate students have also sought to be recognized as a bargaining unit, urged NYU to ``carry the case to federal courts if it has the opportunity.''
But Aramayo, a Yale doctoral candidate who teaches undergraduate Latin American history, said the ruling adds momentum to a national movement to unionize. ``We consider the work we do for the university essential to the university's functioning, and because of that we think we're employees like anybody else,'' Aramayo said.
The NLRB's decisions cannot be appealed. NYU's Beckman said the university had not decided whether it would ``avail ourselves of the court system.''
Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, which filed documents supporting the university, said many institutions fear that the decision could lay the groundwork for a reversal of a 1981 Supreme Court ruling that precluded faculty in general from collective bargaining at private institutions.
``It erodes a relationship between faculty and students,'' he said of the NLRB decision. ``From grading to who should graduate to the curriculum that might be taught, they could all become subjects of collective bargaining.''
NYU and others contend the board excludes graduate students paid by outside grants, unnecessarily dividing scholars. The board says its decision covers students compensated by the university for services they provide.
``They have created artificial distinctions between different `types' of graduate assistants,'' Beckman said.
The waning influence of the labor movement has turned unions' eyes to college campuses. In the mid-1990s, unions began offering summer internships.
Patrick McCreery, 33, an NYU graduate student in American Studies, predicted: ``We are going to be seeing a lot of union activism at other private universities because of this decision.''
On the Net:
Graduate Student organizing committee at NYU: http://members.aol.com/gsocuaw
New York University site on graduate unions: http://www.nyu.edu/publicaffairs/gradissues
National Labor Relations Board: http://www.nlrb.gov/index.html
Links to other graduate student unions: http://www.taa-madison.org/links.html
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