Many graduate teaching assistants at New York University and a dozen other private universities are spoiling to unionize, but they have been frustrated by a 2004 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board saying they cannot unionize because they are students, not employees.
Now, the university’s graduate assistants have gotten some encouraging news: The labor board’s New York office has issued a decision that lays the groundwork to overturn the 2004 ruling, which was issued by a Republican-dominated N.L.R.B.
On Monday, the United Auto Workers — the union the university’s graduate teaching and research assistants are seeking to join — released the new decision, which seems to provide ammunition for the five-seat N.L.R.B. in Washington, now dominated by Democratic appointees of President Obama, to reverse the 2004 decision.
The United Auto Workers and the graduate students clearly hope the labor board in Washington will soon rule that New York University’s graduate teaching and research assistants should be considered employees, and thus have a right to unionize.
The new decision comes after more than 1,000 assistants petitioned the university in April 2010 to demand recognition of a union that would represent their interests.
In the decision, Elbert F. Tellem, the acting director of the labor board’s New York office, wrote that he must defer to the 2004 decision, but he issued language to undercut it.
“The instant record clearly shows that these graduate assistants are performing services under the control and direction of” N.Y.U. “for which they are compensated,” he wrote. “It is also clear on the record that these services remain an integral component of graduate education.”
In the 2004 ruling, which involved graduate assistants at Brown University who were seeking to win union recognition, the labor board in Washington ruled that they were not to be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act because their role was overwhelmingly that of students and not of workers.
Mr. Tellem took a swipe at that decision, saying it was “premised on a university setting as it existed 30 years ago” when the role of graduate students and teaching assistants was different, with far less emphasis on their teaching roles.
In discussing the N.Y.U. graduate assistants,Mr. Tellem wrote, “The graduates have a dual relationship with the employer which does not necessarily preclude a finding of employee status.”
Julie Kushner, the director of the U.A.W.’s New York region, welcomed the decision.
“Today’s a good day for U.A.W. members at N.Y.U.,” she said. She added that she was excited that the labor board’s New York office “agrees with what we’ve been saying all along: When you perform work and get paid for it, you’re a worker, with the same rights as all other workers.”
N.Y.U. has maintained that the graduate assistants should not have their own union. It has also argued that those graduate students who teach should be in the union for adjunct faculty.
Mr. Tellem rejected the university’s stance, writing that the interests and the role of graduate teaching assistants differ markedly from those of traditional adjunct faculty.
The university did not have an immediate response to the regional director’s decision.
“This decision clearly recognizes that we are employees, who work for and receive compensation from N.Y.U.,” said Jan Padios, a graduate teaching assistant in the university’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. “Now we’re going to take this case to the N.L.R.B. in Washington D.C., and claim our rights as workers.”
In 2000, a majority of N.Y.U.’s graduate assistants voted to join the auto workers’ union, and two years later they became the first such group at a private university in the United States to sign a union contract with their university’s administration. The four-year accord raised stipends by nearly 40 percent, improved health benefits and paid the assistants extra if their work took more than 20 hours a week.
But after the labor board’s 2004 ruling took away their right to unionize and bargain for a contract, the assistants were unable to persuade the university to sign a new contract.