Nemeth Law looks at new NLRB decision that student assistants at private universities are employees and can unionize

August 24, 2016
Detroit, Michigan

Kellen Myers, an attorney with Detroit-based management side labor and employment law firm Nemeth Law, P.C., said that Tuesday’s historic decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that student assistants at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) will likely have ramifications throughout the country.

“The NLRB’s decision allows students who work as teaching assistants, research assistants and fellows at private colleges and universities at the graduate and undergraduate level to unionize, in essence declaring them to be employees first and students second,” Myers said.

The NLRB decision stems from a union election petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, which was looking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, as well as graduate research assistants, at Columbia University in New York. In Tuesday’s 3-1 decision, the Board overruled its 2004 decision in Brown University, which held that graduate student assistants who performed services at a university in connection with their studies were not statutory employees under the Act.

The Brown University Board had emphasized the primarily educational relationship between graduate students and their institutions in reasoning that the NLRA was only designed to cover relationships that are economic in nature.  The current Board disagreed with this rationale and held that Brown University failed to interpret the NLRA in light of its policies and, in doing so, had “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”

As a result of the ruling, student assistants at private educational institutions are now protected by the NLRA and have the right to not only unionize but to discuss wages and other terms and conditions of employment or engage in other lawfully protected activity such as strikes. What lies ahead is that student assistants and their respective institutions can now bring to bear the full arsenal of economic weapons available through collective bargaining that are often used in labor disputes, including strikes, lockouts and replacement workers, among other things.

Michigan has approximately 35 private not-for-profit educational institutions (not including the handful of private for-profit institutions) which could be affected by this decision, according to statistics Myers obtained from the Michigan’s Student Financial Services Bureau.

“Although it remains to be seen whether a union election petition at Columbia will be successful, this decision will likely have a major impact at private colleges and universities both in Michigan and across the country,” Myers said. “While the NLRB’s decision is significant, it is consistent with the current nature of the agency, which is aggressively pursuing a more expansive interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act.”

About Nemeth Law, P.C.

Nemeth Law specializes in arbitration, mediation, workplace investigations, employment litigation, traditional labor law and management consultation/training for private and public sector employers. It is the largest woman-owned law firm in Michigan to exclusively represent management in the prevention, resolution and litigation of labor and employment disputes.