Columbia To Appeal NLRB Grad Student Unionization Ruling

On January 30, 2018, Columbia University (“Columbia”) announced in a campus-wide letter that it will not bargain with the representatives of graduate student assistants (“GSAs”) that won a union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) and will instead challenge the NLRB’s ruling that deemed the GSAs employees in a federal appeals court.

In August 2016, the NLRB ruled1 in favor of GSAs at Columbia, finding that GSAs at private colleges and universities are statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), and, therefore, are entitled to unionize. The 2016 decision reversed a 2004 NLRB decision2 that found that Brown University graduate teaching and research assistants were not employees under the NLRA. The Brown University ruling reversed a 2000 New York University ruling3 which was the first that allowed teachers assistants/GSAs to unionize.

In December 2016, the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWU, an affiliate of the United Automobile Workers (“UAW”) union, won a vote to serve as the graduate students’ collective bargaining representative. After the vote, Columbia filed several objections to the NLRB ruling. Columbia alleged that a union officer interfered with the election by waiting at a polling site, union supporters pressured students by filming around voting areas, and that not all voters were required to show identification. The NLRB ruled against Columbia, however, finding that the alleged conduct either did not influence the vote or affected so few voters that it could not have possibly changed the results.

In the letter dated January 30, 2018, John H. Coatsworth, the provost of Columbia University, stated that bargaining will be put on hold until after the legal challenge is complete. Coatsworth stated that the NLRB’s position on whether GSAs are employees has “shifted repeatedly,” and that, “we remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.” Coatsworth also stated that Columbia is committed to addressing the concerns of GSAs.

Union proponents disagree with Columbia’s actions. Julie Kushner, a UAW regional director, called Columbia’s refusal to bargain with GSAs “outrageous,” and likened the appeal to “delay tactics.” Additionally, Olga Brudastova, a research assistant at Columbia, said that the school’s letter demonstrated how out-of-touch it is with its students’ needs, and stated that, “we will not go away until they agree to a fair contract.”

The legal team at SFMS has significant experience litigating employment matters. If you have any questions regarding this subject or this posting, please contact Nick Lussier ( or Chiharu Sekino ( We can also be reached toll-free at (866) 540-5505.

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1 The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, 364 NLRB 90 (2016).

2 Brown University and International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW AFL-CIO, Petitioner, 342 NLRB 483 (2004).

3 New York University and International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, AFL-CIO, Petitioner, 332 NLRB 1205 (2000).


Bultman, Matthew. “NLRB Rules Grad Students Are Employees, Can Unionize.” Law 360. Last modified on August 23, 2016.

Campbell, Braden. “NLRB Officer Calls Columbia Students’ Union Election Valid.” Law 360. Last modified on March 7, 2017.

Gurrieri, Vin. “Columbia To Appeal NLRB Grad Student Unionization Ruling.” Law 360. Last modified on January 30, 2018.