Our friends at Workplace Prof Blog note that the UAW appears to be readying a test case for the Obama Labor Board. The issue is whether teaching assistants at a private university are “employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act and therefore have the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. The New York Times reports that the union has presented New York University with a petition requesting recognition on behalf of approximately 1,600 graduate assistants.

NLRA coverage of graduate assistants has been one of the see-saw issues for the Board over the last decade. From the early 1970’s to October of 2000, the Board determined that graduate assistants were not “employees” within the meaning of the Act. In New York University, 332 NLRB 1205 (2000), the Board, with a majority of members appointed by President Clinton,  reversed course and extended jurisdiction. The union’s victory was short-lived, however. The Bush Board returned to the earlier interpretation in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004).

 

The Times gives the rest of the story: “After the labor board’s 2004 ruling took away their right to unionize and bargain for a contract, the assistants were unable to persuade N.Y.U. to sign a new contract.”

 

And so the union is back, obviously hoping the pendulum will once again swing. Its hopes are no doubt raised by the dissenting opinion in Brown University, in which then-Member Wilma Liebman (now the Board’s Chair) wrote that treating graduate assistants as outside the Act’s coverage is “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality.”