A federal labor board said graduate students at private schools such as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago can unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled on Tuesday that graduate students are employees who can unionize and collectively negotiate against the private schools paying them to complete their degrees. This reversal of a 2004 NLRB ruling regarding Brown University is considered a win for labor unions, which are pushing to swell their ranks with thousands of graduate students being paid to get advanced degrees.

Some graduate students seeking doctoral degrees are granted positions to teach and assist professors in their work, gaining classroom experience in the process. The university, in turn, will typically reimburse the student with free tuition, free health care and a stipend while they complete their studies.

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The labor board said in its opinion that the previous ruling "deprived an entire category of workers of the protections … without a convincing justification."

Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern University Vice President for University Relations, said in a statement that "Northwestern believes that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants." He said NU "provides guaranteed funding for five years and a high availability of sixth-year support for Ph.D. students in the Graduate School, as well as excellent health care coverage."

Representatives from the University of Chicago could not immediately be reached.

City University of New York professor and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Dan DiSalvo said grad students are generally well-compensated and unionization could create a divide between students and teachers. He added that the ruling now means working graduate students in non-"right-to-work" states like Illinois will be affected, even if they're not in the union. "Other graduate students deemed part of that collective bargaining unit and decide not to join the union can still be forced to pay agency fees to that union." he said. This is currently the case in Illinois' public universities.

Dr. DiSalvo said the biggest effect the unions could have on others in the school is control over who is allowed to teach undergrad classes. "It would weaken the discretion of the departments to determine who gets to serve as teaching assistants or even teaching their own courses." He said schools could be forced to pick their student teachers based on seniority, rather than merit.

University of Chicago professor and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors Dr. Ken Warren says the schools should recognize unionization efforts. "If you didn't have these cadres of graduate students teaching these courses, you simply couldn't mount much of the undergraduate curriculum." Warren adds that students are taxed for the value of their education and benefits.

The University of Chicago's working graduate students are unofficially represented by Graduate Students United, a pro-unionization group affiliated with Dr. Warren's association and the International Federation of Teachers.

Private sector universities are governed by federal labor laws, but public universities fall under state laws. The University of Illinois' 2,800 working graduates are represented by the Graduate Employees Organization. Illinois state law also allows the union, affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO, to charge non-union graduate employees a monthly fee.

The NLRB ruled last August that football players at Northwestern University were primarily students and not able to form a union.