NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees and have a right to be represented by unions.

The 3-1 ruling Tuesday overturns a 2004 NLRB ruling that said graduate students were not employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Tuesday’s decision in a case involving graduate students at Columbia University potentially affects graduate students at hundreds of private colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

Paul Katz, who is working toward his PhD in Latin American history at Columbia, said a grad student’s role is split evenly with responsibilities as a teacher.

“For my part, when I’m working on my own research, I’m clearly a student. But when I’m at the front of the room teaching 15 students about let’s say the history of ancient Greece, there’s no doubt that in that capacity I am a worker,” Katz said.

By unionizing, Katz said grad students will gain access to even simple benefits like knowing how much they’ll be paid for their work and getting paid on time, WCBS 880’s Mike Smeltz reported.

Olga Brudastova, a graduate research assistant in civil engineering at Columbia, said she looks forward to “a speedy, fair election.”

The ruling will also likely have a significant impact for higher education, possibly forcing private colleges and universities to reconsider how they operate their grad school programs, Smeltz reported.

Columbia said in a statement that it disagrees with the ruling because it believes that the relationship between students and academic departments is not the same as the one between employee and employer. “First and foremost, 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,” Columbia said.

While Columbia and other universities have long argued that collective bargaining could intrude on the educational relationship between graduate students and universities, the NLRB said in Tuesday’s decision that such arguments are “unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence or by the board’s actual experience.”

Graduate students at many public universities, which are covered by state labor laws, are already unionized.

The United Auto Workers is seeking to represent graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia.

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