On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) held that graduate and undergraduate student assistants who perform teaching and research roles at private colleges and universities are statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA” or the “Act”) and are therefore entitled to unionize. Columbia University, Case 02-RC-143012 (August 23, 2016).

The decision overturned a 2004 case involving graduate students at Brown University. There, the Board held that the relationship between graduate assistants and Brown was primarily educational, rather than economic. It also found that the “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the Act.” Brown University, 342 N.L.R.B. 483, 493 (2004); see also http://www.putneylaw.com/cu_102715.html.

However, in Columbia University, the Board found that there was no “convincing justification” for depriving “an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act.” Instead, the Board determined that the definitions of “employer” and “employee” under the NLRA are “very broad” and that the policy of the NLRA … is to “‘encourage the practice and procedure of elective bargaining’ and to ‘protect the exercise of workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing.'” Therefore, the “fundamental belief” of the Brown board is “unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the Board’s actual experience.”

Takeaway for Employers

This decision is the latest instance of the Board’s vacillation on the issue of student unionization, and reflects the current Board’s willingness to overturn established precedent and to offer “very broad” protections to employees that seek to unionize.

Private university employers should prepare for unionization efforts from their graduate and undergraduate student assistants and research assistants. We remind employers that under the election rules recently adopted by the Board (see http://www.putneylaw.com/cu_122214b.html), union campaigns can appear with little notice, and elections can occur in as little as two to three weeks from the date a union files a representation petition.

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If you have any questions regarding the NLRB decision, please do not hesitate to contact us.
212-682-0020 | PutneyLaw.com.