Graduate Students, After Gains in Union Efforts, Face a Federal Setback

on Sep20
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A Harvard spokesman said the university was concerned that a new arbitration system would violate federal law by creating a process for union members only, separate from the provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“It is unfortunate that a work disruption is being considered,” said the spokesman, Jonathan L. Swain. “There remains an ongoing commitment on the part of the university to these negotiations.”

It’s not clear how the N.L.R.B.’s proposed rule will affect universities where bargaining is underway. Mr. Swain said Harvard was reviewing the proposed rule to “assess what implications it may have.”

But the regulation could give universities the upper hand in negotiations.

“This could be an additional reason that they could articulate or rely upon to discontinue bargaining, or limit bargaining on certain issues,” said Mr. Gould, the former N.L.R.B. chairman. “The only option for the union then would be to go to the very N.L.R.B. that had established a contrary position.”

The rule proposed Friday is the latest swing on an issue that has divided the board along partisan lines for two decades. In 2000, the N.L.R.B. overturned a longstanding precedent and gave students at New York University the right to unionize. But that ruling was reversed in 2004, in a decision involving Brown University, before the board switched back to the pro-union standard in 2016.

In the proposed rule, the N.L.R.B. states that students at private universities who “perform services” related to their studies are “primarily students with a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” After a 60-day period for public comment, the board will revisit the proposal.

“This rule-making is intended to obtain maximum input on this issue from the public, and then to bring stability to this important area of federal labor law,” John F. Ring, the chairman of the N.L.R.B., said in a statement.

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