The National Labor Relations Board

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency responsible for protecting the right of workers to come together to improve their working conditions. The NLRB investigates cases of unfair labor practices, and oversees elections through which workers vote on union representation.

In August of 2016, the NLRB ruled that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the right to engage in collective bargaining. This ruling responded to a petition filed by graduate student workers at Columbia University.

In the majority decision, the NLRB argued that private universities like Columbia or Penn rely on the vital services that graduate students are required to perform – teaching, grading, leading discussions, conducting grant-funded research, and so on. This work helps generate the revenues that allow private universities to function. The Board concluded that graduate students may be both students and employees, and that their rights as employees should be protected as such under the law.


Thanks to the August ruling, graduate student employees across the country may now have a formal voice in negotiating their working conditions. We can choose to exercise this right by holding an election for union representation.

In order to hold an election, we’ll first seek authorization from members of our bargaining unit – the graduate students who will be represented by a union contract. By signing authorization cards, grad student workers petition the NLRB to bring the choice for union representation to a vote.  Once our petition and bargaining unit have been assessed by the NLRB’s Regional Director, the Director will conduct a representation election in which all members of the bargaining unit can vote. Our union will be certified if more than 50% of grad employees who cast ballots vote in favor.

We’ll then be empowered to bargain collectively with union representation. We’ll democratically decide which issues are most important to graduate student workers, and we’ll elect representatives to participate in contract negotiations with representatives of the university administration. This contract will then come back to graduate workers for a ratification vote.