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Labor board says Tufts medical school professors not eligible to unionize

The National Labor Relations Board dealt a blow to Tufts University medical school professors trying to unionize, ruling that the faculty members’ managerial duties preclude their right to organize.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by a regional director in Boston, found that the 70 tenured and tenure-track professors who were attempting to join the Service Employees International Union Local 509 can be considered supervisors because they oversee million-dollar research labs, help develop curriculum, and have other management-level responsibilities at the Chinatown campus. Supervisors are not eligible to organize, according to the National Labor Relations Act.

More than 3,800 adjunct and non-tenured professors at private universities around Boston — at Tufts, Northeastern, Brandeis, Bentley, Lesley, and Boston University — have joined Local 509 in the past two and a half years, including more than 275 salaried lecturers and instructors at Boston University who voted on Wednesday to join the union. The Tufts University School of Medicine staff is the first group of tenured or tenure-track professors in Boston to attempt to unionize, according to Local 509.


Faculty unions at public universities, which are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, often include tenured faculty. But organizing tenured faculty at private schools is a relatively new undertaking, said Local 509 spokesman Jason Stephany. The Tufts ruling could present a challenge for faculty who run research labs, he said, but won’t affect other collective bargaining efforts at other colleges and universities.

Karina Meiri, a tenured professor of developmental, molecular, and chemical biology who has been at the Tufts School of Medicine since 2000, said she and her colleagues were looking for union support to negotiate salaries and other issues. The university is looking to restructure how compensation is calculated, she said, which could result in salary cuts of up to 40 percent.

The labor board found that professors’ managerial duties are largely limited to individual research programs and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, which has a $4 million budget, Meiri noted — a fraction of the medical school’s $100 million budget.


“It’s a very, very narrow decision that was focused on a very, very small proportion of the function of the medical school,” she said. “The NLRB extrapolated that small proportion of our responsibilities to say that we have overall managerial responsibilities, while at the same time agreeing with us that we have no influence on the vast proportion of the medical school budget. That’s rather puzzling.”

In a statement, Tufts University praised the labor board’s decision: “We are pleased that the regional director recognizes the significant authority that our faculty members have in critical areas of the school’s management.”

The Tufts ruling, issued by Ronald Cohen, the acting regional director for the national labor board, follows precedent set by a 1980 Supreme Court case. The court ruled that tenured faculty members at Yeshiva University, a private school in New York City, had managerial status and thus not eligible for collective bargaining rights.

But a 2014 National Labor Relations Board decision allowing faculty to organize at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., opened the door for more private-sector faculty unions. In it, the board laid out a set of criteria to determine if college faculty members are managerial employees. The standards include having control over academic programs, enrollment, finances, policy, and personnel.

The Tufts case is significant, said Nick DiGiovanni, a lawyer at Morgan, Brown & Joy in Boston who represented Tufts, because it is the first NLRB decision involving tenured professors based on guidelines from the Pacific Lutheran case.


“If an institution has sufficient evidence of their faculty having effective control over curriculum issues, student policies and admissions, and also authority in other areas such as financial affairs and personnel matters, as is the case with Tufts, then the board will likely find them to be managerial,” he said.

Despite the setback, unionization efforts among tenured faculty will continue, Local 509 said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.