Decision Affects Private Colleges and Universities

For decades, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has held college students who teach courses or perform research for compensation while they are students are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.  In a major shift, the Board in Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90 (Aug. 23, 2016), held both undergraduate and graduate students who serve as student assistants can unionize at private colleges and universities. The decision was 3-1.

The decision reverses a 2004 ruling by the NLRB centered on Brown University and its graduate student assistants.  Under the previous precedent, student assistants who taught or performed research as part of their degree programs were not employees under the Act, because they had a primarily academic relationship with the school as an educator.  On the other hand, the Act was designed to regulate employees who had a primarily economic relationship with their employers.

The Board distinguished student assistants from traditional employees, noting the students spend a limited number of hours as teaching or research assistants, but are doing the work with a primary focus on obtaining a degree instead of receiving economic compensation. In this manner, the Board viewed the work of student assistants as part of their degree program-and essentially student financial aid-as opposed to compensation for work performed.

In Columbia, the Board expressly overruled this distinction, focusing on the broad definition of “employee” in the Act to conclude there is statutory authority to treat student assistants as employees where they perform work at the direction of the university.

The Board summarized its shift in reasoning, stating succinctly: “In other words, a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.”  Now, student assistants are employees under the Act, and able to unionize like the workforces of other employers.

The impact of this decision is far-reaching. Private colleges and universities that rely on work by students in their operations should be aware following the Columbia ruling, their student assistants may unionize and doing so would bring unprecedented changes to the university’s relationship with student assistants. Now, aspects of the university academic mission such as class size and subject matter of student assistant taught courses or research could become subjects of collective bargaining, along with stipend size, grievance procedures, health care, and other subjects that are traditionally collective bargaining subjects.

As a human resources professional in the higher education field-or if your organization uses student assistants in any capacity-please reach out to the Labor and Employment team at Woods Rogers with questions about how these changes might affect your institution or business.