NAICU Washington Update

NAICU Submits Response to Proposed Regulations on Student Unions

January 16, 2020

NAICU has submitted comments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on its proposed rule that would deny students – both graduate and undergraduate – employed at private universities the right to unionize under the authority of the National Labor Relations Act. NAICU’s comments support the NLRB’s position that such individuals are primarily students, not employees, for purposes of the Act.
NAICU is also a signatory to higher education community comments that were coordinated by the American Council on Education and the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources in support of the proposed rules. NAICU decided to separately submit its own comments in order to supplement the joint letter and to emphasize the importance of this issue to the private, nonprofit sector.
The NLRB’s decision to issue regulations represents 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 NLRB’s use of its rulemaking authority represents a departure from its usual practice of relying on findings in specific cases, which then serve as precedents for interpreting the law.  A final rule is likely to 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 determine only what is required under federal law.  Any private university remains free to enter voluntarily into a collective bargaining contact with a union representing its students.

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