Are graduate assistants who teach college classes employees or students? How about residents who are completing their medical training at hospitals?

It's a key issue, because employees are allowed to form unions, but students aren't. Last week, votes from a long delayed union election by residents at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx were counted. The result: 119 in favor of the union, two opposed.

Last week, my colleague, Chris Hepp, wrote a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Temple's adjunct instructors trying to form a union. There have been long battles over that same topic at Yale, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. The argument turns on whether the adjuncts are students, working as instructors in a work-study kind of way, or whether they are closer to employees.

For hospital residents, the issue tends to be a little clearer. The kind of salaries they earn, (considerably more than $45,000) and the hospitals' contributions to benefits and pensions help push the argument that residents are more like employees than students.

In January, 2009, nearly 90 percent of the residents of St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York, petitioned the hospital seeking to have the Committee of Residents and Interns/Service Employees International Union Healthcare recognized as their bargaining unit. The hospital refused and the matter went to a National Labor Relations Board  election in May 2009, after a local board ruling that the residents were entitled to form a union.

The hospital appealed and the election results were impounded before they were counted. On June 3, 2010, the National Labor Relations Board upheld the lower board's ruling, saying the residents were clearly employees.

So what is the upshot? Maybe it will mean that there will be some limitation on the hours that residents can work. Can good medical care really be delivered by someone who is on an 70 or 80 hour work week?