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Universities boost stipends ahead of ruling on grad unions

University Hall on Brown University’s campus.
University Hall on Brown University’s campus. Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

NEW YORK — Several private universities are boosting stipends and benefits ahead of a federal ruling that could clear the way for graduate students to form unions. To some grad students, it’s an attempt to persuade them they don’t need collective bargaining to get a raise.

Union backers say pay hikes are nice but what they want most is more control over their work as teaching and research assistants.

‘‘The message isn’t that graduate students need more money,’’ said Ben Cohen, who studies biomedical engineering at Cornell University, which recently raised stipends by 2 percent and increased child-care subsidies for graduate students.


‘‘The message is that graduate students deserve to have a voice in their representation,’’ he said.

Thousands of graduate students at public universities are already unionized, but New York University is the only private university in the United States where graduate students have union representation.

That could change. The National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in 2000 that grad students had a right to collective bargaining only to reverse itself in 2004, has been revisiting the issue in cases involving Columbia University and the New School, both in New York City.

Pro- and anti-union forces say they expect the current board, appointed by President Obama, to again declare that grad students have a right to organize. A ruling is expected before Obama leaves office.

Last month, Columbia said it would raise the standard nine-month graduate stipend of $26,286 by 17 percent over four years. The university acted in May to increase child-care subsidies and paid parental leave. The University of Chicago announced a $2,000 graduate student stipend increase over two years last December. Brown University raised stipends and added money for dental coverage and travel to conferences.