The National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private colleges are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, but did not extend the employee classification to student athletes.
The 3-1 decision came on Tuesday and received a good amount of media attention. The NLRB took up the case involving graduate students at Columbia University in New York. The decision permits the graduate students to collectively bargain on behalf of teaching assistants (both graduate and undergraduate assistants), and effectively overruled a 2004 decision involving Brown University, where the NLRB held that graduate students are not employees under the definition in the Act, and thus not eligible for collective bargaining rights.
The NLRB’s new precedent expanded the definition of “employee” under the Act to include students who are employed by a college or university.
The board determined that the Brown decision “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.” Some might conclude that student athletes would fit into the category of “deprived workers,” however, the NLRB expressed their view that student-athletes do not constitute employees of the university.
In 2015, the NLRB ruled against a claim put forth by football players at Northwestern University that they were not just students, but also employees of the school thus eligible for collective bargaining rights. While the NLRB did not explicitly state the reasons why the players were not employees of the University, their 2015 decision was grounded on the principle that allowing student-athletes at Northwestern to form a union would “foster instability in college athletics where some student-athletes would be able to form a union while others would not.”
In its decision, the NLRB explained how the Act does not give it jurisdiction over public, state colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and so if the NLRB were to assert jurisdiction over just the 20 private institutions, it would create all sorts of havoc for the NCAA and college football, and hinder stability in labor relations across college football and other college sports.
The NLRB concluded that student athletes are not employees, “due to their situation within and governance by an athletic consortium dominated by public universities.”
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