Joel Dillard & Associates

Representing Working People

University teaching assistants and research assistants can now organize labor unions under the NLRA

The NLRB just issued a decision expanding the protections of labor law to apply to college teaching assistants and research assistants, finding that they are statutory employee under the National Labor Relations Act.

The Board held that “student assistants who perform work at the direction of their university for which they are compensated are statutory employees.” The majority rejected the argument that the Act was intended to only cover employment relationships that are primarily economic in nature, noting that this language doesn't appear anywhere in the statute. It also rejected arguments by the schools that they were somehow special under labor law, either because bargaining is somehow impossible with graduate students or that academic freedom required individual rather than collective bargaining.

The reaction of the union-side bar has been positive, though some have been surprised at the breadth of the reasoning in the decision, particularly in light of the Board refusal to apply the Act to student athletes.

It will be interesting to see the impact of this case. There have already been some successful efforts to organize, for example, medical residents under the 1999 decision in Boston Medical Center. Will this case lead to a rennaisance of labor organizing with student staff, or will the schools find ways to reorganize their programs to avoid characterizing the activities of the students as compensable work? The opinion is written with sufficient bredth that it may prove difficult to avoid.

This was also an interesting case in that it forms part of a new adjudicatory approach for the Board which marries some of the administrative advantages of rulemaking and adjudication. The Board issued a public request for amicus briefs, which resulted in the generation of a significant body of real-world information which the Board was able to bring to bear in its analysis.

Read the full Board decision here.


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