Student assistants working at private colleges and universities are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board ruled this week in a case involving Columbia University.
The 3-1 decision, which came Tuesday, permits Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW the opportunity to collectively bargain on behalf of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, as well as graduate research assistants, overruled a 2004 NLRB decision involving Brown University. The board in Brown found graduate student assistants were not within the meaning of the act’s definition of an employee.
The board in Columbia, however, took a more expansive view of the NLRB’s language in Section 2(3) and the core purpose of the act. The board explained the definition includes “any employee” subject to certain exceptions. Because the act does not specifically address students employed by their universities, these students should not be excluded from protection. Additionally, the purpose of the act is to encourage collective bargaining and to protect workers who choose to associate and organize together and designate representatives to act on their behalf. As a result, the board determined 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.”
The board in Columbia further explained the existence of an additional relationship the act does not reach (i.e., the student relationship) does not prevent an employment relationship from also existing and that coverage under the act should exist without appropriate justification. The board concluded that allowing collective bargaining on graduate students would intrude upon their education as students or be inconsistent with the purpose of the act.
Applying Columbia decision to student-athletes
While this precedent seems to indicate student-athletes could also be classified as both students and employees of their institutions, thus contradicting the board’s 2015 decision involving Northwestern University football players, the board doesn’t believe this to be the case.
At Northwestern, football players, with the aid of the College Athletes Players Association, claimed the players were not just students who play sports but also were employees of the institution who work more than 40 hours a week training, practicing and playing games that bring in millions of dollars in revenue. The players argued that while they do receive athletics scholarships, the value of those scholarships do not fully reflect the players’ value to Northwestern; therefore, they claimed, they should be able to collectively bargain.
While the players were found to be employees at the regional level, the board ultimately rejected the players’ bid to unionize. Instead of offering an opinion on whether the football student-athletes were, in fact, employees, the board instead steered the explanation in another direction; that allowing football 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. The board explained the act does not give it jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across FBS football and the NCAA as an organization.
While the board in Columbia highlighted the expansive definition of “employee” under the act and the promotion of collective bargaining in order to prevent categories of workers from being protected under the act, the board maintained its view that extending coverage to student-athletes isn’t appropriate “due to their situation within and governance by an athletic consortium dominated by public universities.”
Justin P. Sievert, Esq., is the founder/principal of Sievert Collegiate Consulting, a professor of sports law at the University of Tennessee, and a contributing writer on sports law and sports business issues for Sporting News. He is an attorney licensed to practice in Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida and has focused his practice on higher education and sports law. Justin has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Union College (NY), a master’s degree in education from St. Lawrence University and a juris doctor (J.D.) degree from the University of Miami (Fla.).