Student–Employees at Private Universities Win Right to Unionize

In August, student-employees at private universities won the right to collectively bargain with their employers, as well as the other protections of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”). 

The question before the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) in Columbia University, 364 N.L.R.B. No. 90, was “whether students who perform services at a university in connection with their studies are statutory employees within the meaning” of the Act.  The NLRB ruled that student–employees are entitled to the protections of the Act, finding that “[s]tatutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.” 

The NLRB reversed bad Bush Board precedent that found that student–employees were not “employees” under the Act, and thus not entitled to the protections of the Act, including the right to unionize.  In its ruling in Columbia University, the NLRB returns to prior precedent that allows student–employees, such as graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants to unionize.  In the recent past, the Obama Board has attempted to confront the issue of student-employee hybrid with respect to theirs rights to unionize. 

In light of the recent Columbia decision, pursuant to a stipulated election agreement, student-employees at Harvard University will vote on Union representation in an on-site election conducted by the NLRB on November 16 and 17, 2016.   

The Columbia University decision marks a definitive ruling by the current NLRB that student–employees have the right to unionize and broadens the understanding of what it means to be an “employee” in our current economy.  While this decision is a great victory for student–employees and their unions, they must remain vigilant as history shows the definition of “employee” can easily shift depending on who controls the NLRB.

By Anthony Tucci | November 2, 2016

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