NLRB Paves the Way for Graduate Student Unions

By: John R. Merinar Jr.

Published: March 16, 2021

NLRB withdraws proposed rule intended to benefit private colleges and universities: The March 15, 2021 Federal Register contained an unwelcome surprise for private colleges and universities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it is withdrawing a proposed rule published last September that, if adopted, would have classified graduate students who are compensated in connection with their studies as non-employees.

The history behind the Board’s proposed “graduate student rule” is well-known. In a 2016 case captioned Columbia University, 346 NLRB No. 90, the Board ruled that graduate students are employees and therefore have the right to organize and bargain collectively. Obviously, this was a case of great significance in the higher education community.

By proposing the “graduate student rule” in September 2020, the Board sought to give blanket protection to private colleges and universities. Had the rule been adopted, these institutions could still have voluntarily recognized and bargained with graduate student unions. But, since the graduate students would have been non-employees, the colleges and universities would not have had a duty to recognize and bargain with graduate student unions.

With the rule withdrawal, the stage is set for graduate student unions: It is reasonable to expect that the withdrawal of the “graduate student rule” will reinvigorate the movement among graduate students to unionize. Indeed, graduate students at Northwestern University have already issued a statement that they expect this development to bolster their organizing efforts.

The consequences of this shift in the Board’s approach regarding higher education are potentially far-reaching. Where the duty to bargain exists, the right to strike also exists (unless the union bargains that right away at the table). The prospect of the “graduate student rule” being adopted acted like a brake on graduate students’ bargaining expectations.  Now they can be much more confident. For instance, graduate students at Columbia University who are planning to strike have lauded the decision to withdraw the “graduate student rule” and commented that it could not have come at a more opportune time.

Prepare now: Lastly, the withdrawal of the “graduate student rule” is expected to be just the first of many changes, both regulatory and legislative, aimed at strengthening unions’ ability to organize. Whether or not they are aware of this, many colleges and universities have an urgent need to assess management policies and practices, as well as campus culture, in order to prepare for possible organizing efforts.

Please contact the author below if you have questions about how this rule withdrawal could affect your college or university.

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