The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled graduate students at private universities are employees and have the federally protected right to unionize, a decision that will improve the working lives of those who serve as teaching and research assistants. According to details published by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, the decision is also a reversal of a previous NRLB ruling in 2004 that barred unionization by grad students at Brown University.

The sweeping decision affects thousands of graduate students across the U.S., who join those at several public universities who have already unionized under state laws. It also applies to undergraduate students with teaching responsibilities.

A group of Columbia University graduate students petitioned the NLRB after the university blocked their attempts to join the United Automobile Workers union. They sought greater control over health insurance and the scheduling of stipend payments, among other things.

In opposing unionization, Columbia said it would be disruptive and introduce an adversarial tone into the interactions between the university and its students. It also expressed concern about the impact of unionization on the academic life of the university, saying it could unintentionally give grad students the right to negotiate on issues such as class size, teaching methods, and exams.

In its ruling, the NLRB squarely rejected Columbia’s concerns, citing research that showed unionization at public universities had no impact on academics or the relationship between graduate students and the institution. In fact, the research demonstrated unionization often improved those relationships.

The NLRB also referenced New York University (NYU), which allowed its graduate students to unionize in 2013. In particular, the NLRB referred to a clause successfully used by NYU in its collective agreement with graduate students that limits the scope of their input on areas outside of compensation and benefits. The commissioners said that should “allay fears that collective bargaining will attempt to dictate academic matters.”

This precedent-setting decision from the NLRB is an important step forward for the country’s graduate students, who serve a vital role in the educational mission of colleges and universities across the U.S. They deserve the protections offered by unionization and are entitled to a safe, supportive work environment just like any other employee.