Putney, Twombly, Hall & Hirson LLP
521 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10175
Tel: (212) 682-0020


October 27, 2015

NLRB Will Re-Consider Graduate Student Unionization

On October 21, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) granted a Union’s request to re-examine the Board’s 2004 decision in Brown University that found graduate assistants lack bargaining rights because they have a predominantly academic, rather than employment, relationship with their school. 342 NLRB 483 (2004).  The case is The New School, 02-RC-143009, 2015 WL 6358914 (Oct. 21, 2015). 

In The New School, the Board agreed to consider the UAW’s appeal of its decision to deny UAW’s petition for recognition of graduate students at The New School.  Importantly, the UAW’s appeal did not only ask for reversal of the Regional Director’s dismissal, but also for the Board to overrule Brown University.  The Board's decision to take up the appeal was widely expected.  Since its holding in Brown University, the Board has continually questioned the decision and reinforced its belief that graduate students at universities should be considered employees eligible for collective bargaining.

Additionally, in a widely publicized decision from earlier this year, the Board dismissed a union’s petition to represent Northwestern university football players, stating that “scholarship players bear little resemblance to the graduate student assistants or student janitors and cafeteria workers….” The Board then invited the filing of amicus briefs on whether it should “adhere to, modify, or overrule” Brown UniversityNorthwestern University and College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), 2014 WL 1246914 (Mar 17, 2015).

Brief Timeline on Graduate Student Unionization at Universities

  • 2000: The Board held that graduate teaching assistants are eligible for collective bargaining and can be considered employees. New York University, 332 NLRB No. 111 (2000).
  • 2002: NYU recognized the UAW union for its graduate students.
  • 2004: The Board held that graduate teaching assistants were primarily students and not employees entitled to collective bargaining.  Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004).
  • 2005: NYU withdrew recognition of the UAW.
  • 2010-11: UAW filed a new petition with the Board to represent NYU graduate students again.  Although the Board denied the petition, the Acting Regional Director of Region 2 of the Board publicly questioned the logic of Brown UniversityNew York Univ. & GSOC/UAW, 356 NLRB No. 7 (Oct. 25, 2010). 
  • 2011: UAW appealed the Board’s dismissal.
  • 2012: The Board announced it would use UAW’s appeal to reconsider Brown University.
  • 2013: NYU and UAW settle.  UAW’s appeal is withdrawn.
  • 2014-15: The Board denied the UAW’s petition for recognition of graduate students at The New School, citing Brown University.  The UAW appealed the dismissal. The New School, Case No. 02-RC-143009 (Feb. 6, 2015).

Given the Board’s stated willingness to reexamine Brown University, union efforts to organize graduate students will likely continue, if not intensify. Colleges and universities should therefore immediately begin to prepare for potential organizing attempts among their graduate students.  Under the new rules, (see union campaigns appear with little notice, and elections can occur within as little as two to three weeks from the date the union files a petition.

*          *          *

If you have any questions regarding this important decision by the Board, please do not hesitate to contact us.