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Are they students? Or are they employees? NLRB rules that graduate students are employees.

Cosby Potter, 2, sits on his father’s shoulders during a “day of action” to celebrate graduate students and draw attention to demands Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, near the columns on the University of Missouri campus, in Columbia, Mo. (Daniel Brenner/The Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Debates about the role and rights of graduate students have emerged as more universities rely on low-paid adjuncts and doctoral students, rather than full-time professors, to teach — a model that has been widely criticized as exploitative. Though adjuncts are making inroads in their fight for higher wages, graduate students have struggled, in part, because the work they do is often a component of their education.

Yale grad students start a union. Next, they must win bargaining rights.

The 3-to-1 decision overturns a 2004 Brown University ruling in which the board said grad students engaging in collective bargaining would undermine the nature and purpose of graduate education. Many doctoral programs require students to teach or conduct research before earning their degrees, and as a result, universities argue that they have an educational, not economic, relationship with those students.

A 2016 federal ruling opened up the way for graduate students working at private universities to unionize. Here’s how the legal fight played out. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Steven Senne/The Washington Post)

Teaching and research assistants at Columbia University and the New School in New York reignited the fight two years ago by filing separate petitions with the board to join the United Auto Workers. Though a regional labor board director rejected their bids last fall, the full board picked up the case, inviting students, unions and universities to submit briefs.

Stanford University, the Massachusetts of Institute of Technology and the entire Ivy League submitted a brief arguing that involving students in the bargaining process would disrupt operations if negotiations included the length of a class, amount of grading or what’s included in curriculum. Bringing more people to the table, they said, could lead to lengthy and expensive bargaining, potentially to the detriment of all students.

“If a union is allowed to bargain about what teaching and research assistants do, that would in effect be interfering with the educational requirement of many of these schools,” said Joseph Ambash, a Boston attorney who filed the brief on behalf of the schools and represented Brown in 2004. “That would have a dramatic impact on higher education.”

Ambash said the board is opening the door to the full panoply of rights provided under collective bargains and the effect will change the relationship between private sector universities and their students. He said universities can challenge the board’s decision in court.

Philip Miscimarra, the one dissenting opinion on the labor board, raised similar concerns that letting students bargain could “wreak havoc” on their education, with the potential for strikes and lockouts.

Graduate students contend that they essentially are employees and should be afforded the same rights. Though they receive scholarships, stipends and health insurance, many say the coverage is limited and the pay is not enough for them to support themselves or their families. The median pay for a graduate teaching assistant is about $30,800 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but wages vary widely by university and field of study.

In the most recent academic year, Laura Jung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University, earned $19,200 as a teaching and research assistant. The money was barely enough to cover her $1,000 rent and certainly not enough to pay for the health insurance offered by the university, she said. Jung is on Medicaid and said she is just $200 a year shy of qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a form of welfare.

“Being a teaching and research assistant is important; it’s given me valuable classroom experience. What we do has an educational benefit, but the fact of the matter is we’re not paid fair wages,” said Jung, 31, who is finishing up her dissertation. “We work well over the hours we’re supposed to and as a result wind up being paid minimum wage or less. That’s not enough to live in D.C. Trying to make ends meet every month is virtually impossible.”

Jung is now working as an adjunct professor, making about the same as she did as a teaching assistant, because her fellowship covered just three years of her education. Though AU adjuncts recently unionized, Jung is ineligible because she is still considered a graduate student.

“This could be huge,” Jung said of the board ruling. “The vast majority of my colleagues are swimming in student debt. The way things are right now obligates students to take out large amounts of debt to eat and live. There are students who are not going to find jobs that pay enough to pay that back.”

Being recognized as employees means that grad students can bargain for larger stipends and better health coverage, especially if they have children. It also means they can get basic protections, such as unpaid leave.

“It’s an incredible opportunity the NLRB is giving to students, really giving them the ability to have a voice on important issues like their stipends and health care, but also academics and the broader campus community,” said Heather Conroy, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which has been working with graduate students.

Tuesday’s labor board decision is the latest in a series of cases involving graduate student unions, and continues a pattern of the agency reversing course on the issue. Before siding with the university in the 2004 Brown ruling, the board backed grad students at New York University in 2000.

There are more than 30 collective bargaining units representing more than 65,000 graduate students across the country, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. Most of those groups are at public universities, which are governed by state laws and not the labor board.

Though the board overturned its NYU ruling, the university chose to recognize its graduate student union two years ago. Other private universities, including Cornell, have struck agreements with graduate students that clear a path for them to unionize now that the board has overturned the Brown ruling. Students at Yale and Harvard also have voted to form unions, while those at Duke have been organizing in advance of the board ruling.

“There are people working 60 to 70 hours a week in labs, without weekends, sometime without holidays, without getting overtime or anything else,” said Bennett Carpenter, a doctoral candidate at Duke who is organizing students with SEIU’s help. “This ruling restores our right to sit down with the university as equals and have a say in the conditions under which we work. That’s huge.”