History of Unionization at Private Universities


The American Association of University Professors seeks to represent full-time faculty, librarians, department chairs and program directors, and graduate teaching and research assistants at Adelphi University. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules against the inclusion of graduate students, citing that they were “primarily students”.


Stanford PhD student research assistants petition for collective representation and are dismissed by the NLRB on the basis of the “primarily students” logic outlined in the Adelphi ruling.

1976 – 1977

In two separate cases involving the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the St. Clare’s Hospital and Health Center, the NLRB rules that medical interns, residents, and clinical fellows who have earned their MD but are engaged in graduate medical practice and education do not have collective bargaining rights. The stated reason being that they would be detrimental to student-teacher relationships and would “infringe upon traditional academic freedoms”.

1992 – 2000

Bill Clinton (Democrat) is elected president and during his presidency nominates several NLRB members who eventually come to form a majority of the board.


The majority Clinton-appointed NLRB reserves its 1976 and 1977 rulings on medical interns, residents, and clinical fellows and recognizes their collective bargaining rights. They also reject the earlier Board’s speculation about collective bargaining’s deleterious impact on student-teacher relationships and academic freedom, citing that nothing of the sort had occurred at public universities where students were currently organized.


The same Board rules that graduate research and teaching assistants at New York University (NYU) can organize and collectively bargain. This is the first time that students at a private university are allowed to organize.

That same year, George W. Bush (Republican) is elected president. During his presidency, nominates several NLRB members who eventually come to form a majority of the Board.


Brown University challenges the NYU ruling, arguing that graduate students should not be considered employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. A majority of the now Republican-dominated NLRB decides to overturn the NYU decision, concluding that it “was wrongly decided”.

2007 – 2013

The NLRB lacks quorum (only 2 out of 5 seats filled), in part due to Republican filibustering of President Barak Obama’s (Democrat) nominees. The two-member Board informally agrees to only take “non-controversial cases”. In 2010 the Supreme Court rules that the two-member Board has no authority to issue decisions.


NLRB grants a review of a petition by Columbia University graduate students to unionize.


Brown University graduate students ramp up unionization efforts. That same year, Brown administrators joined the administrations at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Stanford, Penn and MIT in drafting an amicus brief to the NLRB for the Columbia case, urging the Board to maintain the status quo and preserve the 2004 Brown decision.

However, the NLRB ultimately ruled that graduate students at private universities are workers and could unionize.