Overruling its 2004 Brown University decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) decided that graduate student assistants at private colleges and universities can be considered statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), permitting them to organize and form a union. Columbia University, 364 NLRB 90 (August 23, 2016). The Board concluded that student assistants who perform paid work at the direction of their university have a common-law employment relationship with the university and therefore, are entitled to the protections of the NLRA.

Why Brown University Was Wrong

The 2004 Board that decided this issue in Brown University ruled that graduate assistants could not be statutory employees under the NLRA because they are primarily students and have a primarily educational relationship with the university, not an economic one. The current Board rejected that view, finding that because student assistants perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated, they are statutory employees and the fact that there may be another relationship not covered by the NLRA, namely an educational relationship, did not foreclose their coverage as employees.

The current Board also disagreed with the Brown University Board’s “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the [NLRA].” Instead, this Board believes that allowing grad assistants to be covered employees meets the “unequivocal policy” of the NLRA to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining, and will make sure that an entire category of workers are not deprived of the protections of the law.

Multiple Flip-Flops On Graduate Assistants

In overruling Brown University, the Board’s position returns to the position held in the 2000 New York University (NYU) ruling, which itself was overruled in Brown University. Prior to the NYU ruling, however, the Board had long held that various student assistants could not be included in petitioned-for bargaining units.

This new flip-flop on the issue of coverage for graduate student assistants is not surprising given the leanings and make-up of the majority of the current Board, which has favored the extension of coverage and its jurisdiction, when possible. Board member Philip Miscimarra dissented in this case, writing that he agreed with the Brown Universityreasoning that graduate student assistants have a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school. He would not have overruled Brown University, or permitted the petitioned-for bargaining unit to proceed. 

Result of Ruling

In applying its ruling to the representation petition involving Columbia University, the Board concluded that all of the petitioned-for student-assistant classifications were statutory employees, that the proposed bargaining unit comprised of graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students and undergraduate students was an appropriate unit, and that none of the petitioned-for classifications consisted of temporary employees who would need to be excluded from the unit because of the limited length of their employment. All of the student-assistant positions in the petitioned-for unit would be allowed to vote on whether to join the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW, based on its petition for representation filed in December of 2014.