People walk on the Columbia University campus in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The nation’s most-elite universities have watched graduate students fight for the right to be represented as employees, knowing that even if teachers and research assistants formed unions, schools were under no obligation to recognize the students in negotiations. Not anymore.

A National Labor Relations Board decision granting graduate students the legal protection to unionize now forces private universities to bargain with organized graduate groups, a new reality that’s not sitting too well with schools.

The 3-to-1 decision, handed down Tuesday, stems from a petition from a group of graduate students at Columbia University seeking to join the United Auto Workers. The three Democratic members of the board agreed that a 2004 Brown University ruling favoring the school “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections” of the National Labor Relations Act “without a convincing justification.”

A federal ruling has opened up the way for graduate students working at private universities to unionize. Here's how the legal fight played out. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Columbia officials disagree with the ruling and argue that the relationship students have with academic departments is not the same as the one employees have with employers.

“Students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third-party in this scholarly training,” said Columbia spokeswoman Caroline Adelman.

A month before the board’s ruling, Columbia said it would raise the graduate stipend of $26,286 by 17 percent over the next four years, a move that graduate organizers say was meant to pacify students.

Prestigious universities, including Columbia, Harvard and Stanford University, submitted a joint brief to the labor board earlier this year that said involving students in the bargaining process would disrupt operations. They expressed concern that teaching and research assistants might want to negotiate the length of a class, amount of grading or what’s included in curriculum. All of that, they said, could lead to lengthy and expensive bargaining.

Stanford spokesman Brad Hayward said the university is disappointed that the NLRB “has overruled years of precedent finding that graduate students are not employees for unionization purposes.”

Harvard offered a measured response to the board decision, acknowledging the importance of collective bargaining and the role it’s played in the school’s history, but maintaining that graduate student unionization will disrupt academic freedoms, mentoring and research at the university.

“If a petition for election is filed at some point by a union seeking to represent Harvard students, we would urge our students to get the facts, learn about the issues, understand the impact of unionization and cast an informed vote,” said Harvard spokeswoman Anna Cowenhoven. “A labor union representing Harvard students will impact not only current students, but also faculty, staff and future students.”

Critics of the ruling warn that it will have far-reaching implications that could undermine higher education. Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education, said the “misguided decision” is broad enough to turn all students, even undergraduates in federal work-study jobs, into potential employees.

That, he said, “would decrease opportunities for campus jobs that help students, particularly those from low- and middle-income families, finance their education and drive up administrative costs.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) sounded similar alarms that the ruling could “destroy student assistant programs that have helped millions afford and undergraduate or graduate education.” He called the board’s decision a “shameless attempt to increase union membership” that confuses the reason students enroll in the first place.

“If I’m earning a BS or an MBA from Union University in Jackson or an advanced engineering degree from Vanderbilt, my primary purpose and benefit during my time there is to gain the skills I need to launch myself into the career and the future I want – not to garner wages as an employee of the university,” Alexander said.

Graduate students at Columbia and other private universities argue that the labor they provide as a part of their education earns them the right to be considered employees.

“It a matter of respect and dignity for the work that we do,” said Ian Bradley-Perrin, a graduate research assistant in the School of Public Health at Columbia. “Yes, we are in school pursuing our own academic interests, but while we’re there, we’re contributing to the prestige and the production of the university.”

Bradley-Perrin said the decision recognizes that graduate students and universities have a mutually beneficial relationship, one that in many ways functions like an apprenticeship, and apprentices have rights as workers.

The board decision is drawing praise from unions that likely will see their rolls swell in the coming months.

“The truth is, graduate workers are the glue that holds higher education institutions together — without their labor, classes wouldn’t get taught, exams wouldn’t get graded and office hours wouldn’t be held,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “The evidence considered by the board clearly showed that far from being detrimental, collective representation enhances the professor-graduate employee relationship so important to academic success.”