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US unions complain over teaching aides' labor rights

WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Two U.S. union groups on Monday asked a U.N. body to declare the U.S. government in violation of international labor rights conventions for barring graduate assistants at private universities from unionizing.

The United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO, a federation of 54 unions, complained to the U.N.’s Geneva-based International Labor Organization over a decision in which assistants at several universities were stripped of their union rights by a U.S. agency dominated by President George W. Bush’s appointees.

“We urge the ILO to issue a strong condemnation of this latest attempt by the Bush board to strip working people of the right to come together to bargain with their employers for a better life,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement.

The National Labor Relations Board, which interprets federal labor law, ruled in 2004 that teaching and research assistants at Brown University were primarily graduate students who received stipends for their services, not workers, and were therefore not entitled to the labor law protections.

The 3-2 ruling, which reversed a unanimous ruling by former President Bill Clinton’s NLRB appointees in 2000, blocked the UAW’s drive to organize the aides at Brown, as well as at Columbia, Tufts and Yale Universities.

It also prompted New York University to end its recognition of the UAW when a contract covering some 1,000 graduate student aides expired in August 2005. The aides went on strike from October 2005 to the end of the academic year in May 2006.

The NLRB’s ruling did not affect the rights of thousands of other unionized graduate assistants at several public universities, which are governed by state laws.

Complaints to the ILO are normally considered by its Committee on Freedom of Association, which decides if international conventions were violated. The process may take at least a year, an AFL-CIO lawyer said.

ILO decisions and recommendations are nonbinding.

In November, the ILO recommended that the Bush administration bargain with a union that would be chosen by 56,000 passenger screeners at U.S. airports, who were denied union bargaining rights in 2003 because of security concerns.