October 1, 2019Client Alert

NLRB Proposed Rule Seeks Clarity on Graduate Student Union Rights

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently released a proposed rule intended to bring stability to graduate students and institutions. The proposed rule blocks college teaching and research assistants from forming unions because they are not considered “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). If this proposed rule becomes effective, it will make it much more difficult for graduate students to obtain collective bargaining rights in the future.

Over the past twenty years, the NLRB has repeatedly changed its stance on this issue through Board rulings. Most recently, in 2016, the Board issued a decision involving graduate assistants at Columbia University. That decision, issued during the Obama era, said student workers were employees with collective bargaining rights under the Act. The decision allowed graduate students on a number of campuses to hold union elections and, in some places, secure first contracts. The Obama-era decision reversed a 2004 decision by a Bush-appointed Board finding student assistants at Brown University were not “employees” under the NLRA because their relationship with the school was “primarily educational.”

In this month’s proposed rule, the Trump-appointed Board relied on the Brown University decision. The majority noted students engaging in teaching and research work receive “knowledge of their discipline,” improve relationships with faculty, and ultimately lack a “sufficient economic relationship” to the claimed employer for purposes of having rights under the Act.

The proposed rule, affecting teaching and research assistants, was published on Monday, September 23. Public comments on the proposed rule are invited for the next sixty (60) days. If you are interested in submitting a comment and need assistance, or if your educational institution has been approached by a labor organization seeking to represent teaching and research assistants, please feel free to reach out to any member of the higher education team at Michael Best.

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