NAICU Washington Update

Proposed Regulations Would Deny Students the Right to Unionize

September 26, 2019

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued a proposed rule that would deny students - both graduates and undergraduates - employed at private universities the right to unionize under the authority of the National Labor Relations Act.  Following the public comment period, which ends on November 22, the Board is expected to issue a final rule without significant modifications. 
This action will be the fourth reversal by the Board concerning the right of graduate students to unionize.  During the 1970s, the Board first addressed the question of graduate student unions in a series of rulings, concluding with a 1974 case involving students at Stanford University that graduate student research assistants were primarily students and not employees.  Then in 2000, the Board ruled that graduate students at New York University could unionize under federal law.  This finding was reversed in 2004 in a ruling against a graduate student union at Brown University.  In 2016, that policy was again reversed in a case finding that students at Columbia University did have the right to unionize.
The use of its rulemaking authority, instead of relying on findings in specific cases which then serve as precedents for interpreting the law, represents a change in tactics by the current Board.  A final rule will be more difficult to reverse than the findings in a new case.
The NLRB has authority over private universities, but public universities are governed by the law in their individual states.  Board rulings only determine what is required under federal law.  Any private university remains free to enter voluntarily into a collective bargaining contact with a union representing its graduate student assistants. 

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