Mark Joseph Stern reports on the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling on Tuesday, August 23rd, that graduate students at private universities have the right to form unions.

The recent decision reversed a 2004 ruling that barred students from organizing, and declared that on the contrary, since graduate students are “employees” (of their universities) as defined under the National Labor Relations Act, they possess the right to unionize. The 2004 decision had ruled that since graduate students’ relationship with their educational institution was “primarily educational,” even graduate students serving as teaching assistants or research fellows could not qualify, strictly speaking, as “employees” and therefore could not unionize.

The earlier 2004 ruling claimed that collective bargaining by graduate students might “unduly infringe upon traditional academic freedoms,” such as the “right to speak freely in the classroom,” and could not “coexist successfully with student-teacher relationships, with the educational process, and with the traditional goals of higher education.”

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, shared some of those concerns: The “mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars.” He has “long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees.’”

But many Ph.D. students are in favor of the recent decision. “We are excited we have finally reached this important milestone,” noted Olga Brudastova, a student of civil engineering and mechanics at Columbia, “[we] look forward to a speedy, fair election so we can demonstrate our majority support and get into bargaining as soon as possible.”

Why exactly are graduate students so eager to unionize?

One may be tempted to believe it’s a question of compensation, and for many, it is. For doctoral candidate Laura Jung, earning $19,200 a year as a teaching assistant just won’t cut it in Washington, DC, where she pays $1,000 a month for rent alone. “This could be huge,” she says of the ruling. “The vast majority of my colleagues are swimming in student debt.” Collective bargaining could allow graduate students to bargain for higher stipends, better health coverage, and other benefits.

Before the ruling, several private universities increased stipends and benefits, perhaps in an attempt to keep students happy and dissuade them from feeling the need to organize.

But for some students, compensation is not the issue. According to Ben Cohen, a biomedical engineering student at Cornell, “The message isn’t that graduate students need more money,” but rather that “graduate students deserve to have a voice in their representation.”

As the decision plays out, there will be a number of questions to monitor: What are the implications of legally considering graduate students as employees rather than students? Will unionization succeed in producing living wage stipends and other benefits for graduate students? And how will the position of Master’s students, who generally pay their way through graduate school, change once Ph.D. students receive greater recognition?

Of course, there is no guarantee that the ruling will stand if it is taken by private universities to federal court. The recent decision is already a reversal of the 2004 precedent blocking graduate student unionization, and there is no guarantee that another reversal is not in the making. Nevertheless, for many graduate students who have been working for greater recognition, better wages, and family-friendly benefits, unionization may be the milestone they were looking for to achieve their goals.