NLRB Says Student Assistants Can Unionize

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Employment & Labor Law Special Alert

August 2016

Last week, in Columbia Univ., 364 NLRB No. 90 (2016), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that student assistants (e.g., course assistants, graders, readers, preceptors, teaching assistants, teaching fellows) at private colleges and universities are statutory employees who can unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Notably, this decision applies to both undergraduate and graduate student assistants as well as assistants engaged in research funded by external grants. With the exception of a brief time period in the early 2000s, student assistants historically have not had the right to unionize during the Act’s 80-plus year history.

At this time, all private higher education institutions should consider the potential impact the Columbia Univ. decision may have on their campuses. Colleges and universities should assess their vulnerabilities to student unions, methods by which they can educate students so that students can make informed decisions about organizing amid the Board’s new “quickie” election rules, and strategies for minimizing educational and operational disruptions during any ensuing collective bargaining process.

The Columbia Univ. decision is just the latest of several recent reminders that institutions of higher education are on the radars of big labor. About a year ago, in a highly publicized case, the NLRB left the door open as to whether scholarship collegiate athletes could unionize in Northwestern Univ., 362 NLRB No. 167 (2015). And, shortly before that, in Pacific Lutheran Univ., 361 NLRB No. 157 (2014), the Board expanded the reach of unions at colleges and universities in two meaningful ways. First, the NLRB decided that it could exercise jurisdiction over employees of religious-affiliated colleges so long as the employees at issue are not performing a “specific role in creating or maintaining the school’s religious educational environment.” Second, the Board made it easier for faculty with managerial authority to join unions, by making it more difficult for them to meet the standard of a managerial employee.

Please feel free to contact the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department to discuss the potential implications that the decision in Columbia Univ. may have at your institution. We will continue to monitor this matter and advise you of any developments, including appellate developments, as they become available.