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NLRB Ruling re: Private University Labor Update

Client Alert

Private University Labor Update

Graduate students employed by private universities are permitted to unionize under federal law.

On Tuesday, August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working a private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The decision reverses the NLRB’s decision in Brown University 342 NLRB 483.

The NLRB had long held that students who teach at private universities were not employees. In 2000, a Democrat laden Board altered the NLRB’s principle in New York University, 332 NLRB 1205 (NYU) when it held that graduate assistants were employees. In 2004, a Republican led Board in Brown University reconsidered NYU and concluded that the 25-year precedent was correct, and that NYU should be overruled.

The NLRB has swung back to a Democrat majority. That majority reversed Brown University saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

What does it mean for Private Universities?

The authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the NLRB absent an exception within the National Labor Relations Act. For as long as the Board maintains a Democrat majority, graduate assistants will be employees under the NLRA and eligible for all collective bargaining rights.

Being recognized as “employees” gives graduate students the right to organize and collectively bargain the terms and conditions of employment. The main terms and conditions will likely be wages/stipends, health coverage (including family coverage), hours of work, holidays, and paid/unpaid leaves of absence.

The main concern that private university employers may face is an overreaching organizational campaign. All graduate students are not equal, and an employer can challenge the appropriateness of a collective bargaining unit under a “community of interest” evaluation. In determining the community of interest, the similarity in hours, wages, benefits, skills, supervision, terms of employment are the most indicative of mutual interest.

For additional information, please contact the Labor and Employment team.  John N. Childs at (330) 253-1946, Jeffrey C. Miller, at (216) 287-5265.


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