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NLRB Overturns Previous Ruling – Student Assistants May Now Unionize



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The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) decided in a 3-1 order that students who perform services for private universities and colleges related to their studies are considered “statutory employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  As employees, the student assistants are now permitted to organize with a union.

In 2014, a group of students at Columbia University petitioned the NLRB to form a collective bargaining unit as the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, as a subset of the United Automobile Workers union.  The proposed collective bargaining unit included: 

• graduate teaching assistants,
• undergraduate teaching assistants,
• graduate research assistants, and 
• departmental research assistants. 

The NLRB has previously held that students who petitioned to organize at Brown University were not employees because students have a primarily educational – not economic – relationship with their respective university.

In the most recent order, the NLRB held that the Brown University decision was not based on sound legal authority.  The NLRB held that the NLRA defines “employee” broadly, and case law supports the holding that student assistants who are directed by their universities and compensated for their work are “employees.”  Therefore, student assistants found to have a “common law” employment relationship with their universities are now considered eligible for unionization by the NLRB.          

As the nation’s universities welcome students back to campus this week, private institutions should be aware that students working in particular roles within the university – even related to their studies – may successfully petition to unionize.  The private institutions can take affirmative steps to resist union organization, just as other employers do within different industries.  Student unionization efforts at public institutions remain controlled by state labor laws.     

Steptoe & Johnson’s Higher Education Team is prepared to assist institutions in navigating the NLRB’s recent order.