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The National Labor Relations Board Grants Student Assistants at Private Universities the Right to Organize


On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) ruled in Columbia University that undergraduate and graduate student assistants at private universities are workers who have the right to unionize. The Board based its ruling on the fact that student assistants perform work for, and are under the control of, universities who compensate them for services that include teaching, research, and grading.

In its 3-1 decision reversing a previous ruling on this same issue, the Board disagreed with Columbia University’s argument that student assistant unions would be inappropriate because their relationship with the University is primarily an educational one. The Board also stated that there is simply no evidence supporting the fears that student-worker organization would have a negative impact on the classroom environment or disrupt the goals of higher education.

The benefits conferred to student assistants working at private universities are significant. Under Columbia University, these workers can now organize and bargain for larger stipends, better health coverage and increased protections such as unpaid leave.

The Board noted that student worker organizing in the public university context is nothing new. Currently, more than 28 collective bargaining units exist representing more than 64,000 graduate students across the country. These student-workers are governed by state law and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

One important example of public sector student-worker organizing is the Washington State Public Employee Relations Commission’s 2014 ruling that Residents and Fellows at the University of Washington’s medical school are employees who have the right to organize and bargain for better working conditions under state law.

A link to the NLRB’s decision is here: