NLRB Rules Student Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants May Unionize

In a landmark decision, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) held that student teaching assistants and research assistants at Columbia University have an employment relationship with the University, making them “employees” under §2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) who, therefore, have the right to organize and form a union.  See The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia – GWC, UAW.  In so holding, the Board overturned a 2004 Board decision, Brown University, which held that “graduate assistants [could not] be statutory employees because they are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”  The Board’s decision in Columbia University is yet another example of its activist agenda of venturing into non-traditional labor issues, including employee handbooks, workplace safety, and arbitration clauses in employment agreements.

In overturning Brown University, the Board observed that the Act’s definition of “employee” appears to have been intended to encompass the ordinary dictionary definition of employee – specifically, any “person who works for another in return for financial or other compensation.”  The Board placed further weight on the fact that in the teaching assistant/private university relationship, there is the payment of tangible compensation.  The Board further opined that payment of such compensation from the university to the teaching assistant, in conjunction with the university’s control over the teaching assistant, is enough to establish an employment relationship under the Act.

Columbia University spokeswoman Caroline Adelman expressed the University’s disapproval with the Board’s decision, stating that “the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.  First and foremost, students serving as research or teaching assistants come to Columbia to gain knowledge and expertise, and we believe there are legitimate concerns about the impact of involving a non-academic third-party in this scholarly training.”  Columbia University’s concerns over the impact of the decision leaves open the possibility of an appeal in federal court in order to overturn the Board’s holding.

The Board’s decision has the potential to have a significant impact on private higher education where issues previously left to the decisions of administrators and non-student teachers, such as the academic curriculum, grading obligations, and semester schedules, will now likely be subject to change through collective bargaining with student teachers and research assistants.  Accordingly, private higher education institutions should expect to see an increase in union organizing efforts.

The Board’s decision in its entirety can be found here.

About Brian Casaceli

Brian is an associate in the firm's Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Group.  He focuses his practice on representing employers in federal and state courts in Massachusetts, as well as before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in defense of claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful termination, breach of contract, and wage payment violations.  
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