- NLRB States that Student Teaching Assistants May Unionize
- September 16, 2016
- Law Firm: Shawe Rosenthal LLP - Baltimore Office
- Reversing a 12-year precedent, the National Labor Relations Board now holds that student teaching and research assistants at private universities may be statutory employees who can thereby unionize.
Background: The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to engage in certain activities for their mutual aid and protection, including the right to unionize. In the 2000 case of New York University, the Board found that graduate assistants were employees within the meaning of the Act. In 2004, however, the Board issued Brown University, in which it overruled New York University and instead held that graduate student assistants were not employees because they “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”
Relying on the Brown University case, an NLRB Regional Director dismissed a complaint in which a union sought to represent graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants at Columbia University. The Board granted review of the Regional Director’s decision.
The Board’s Ruling: In The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, the Board overruled its prior ruling in Brown University, finding that it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification in either the statutory language or the policies of the Act.” The Board noted that, “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.” In other words, student status does not automatically mean that the individual is not also an employee. The Board rejected the “primary relationship” analysis in Brown University, and noted that, “Even when such an economic component may seem comparatively slight, relative to other aspects of the relationship between worker and employer, the payment of compensation, in conjunction with the employer’s control, suffices to establish an employment relationship for purposes of the Act.”
Thus, the Board held that, “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act.” In the present case, the Board found the student assistants in question had such a common-law relationship, as the University exerted control over their work in that it oversaw and directed their teaching or research duties, and the students were compensated for such work, either directly or through stipends, tuition, government grants or other funding. As statutory employees, therefore, the students were entitled to unionize.
Lessons Learned: This case serves as yet another example of a Democratic-leaning Board seeking to expand the reach of the National Labor Relations Act by reversing the more limited scope of precedent issued by a prior Board under a Republican administration.