Seyfarth Synopsis: The NLRB ruled that students who work as teaching assistants at colleges and universities are “employees” under the NLRA and are thus permitted to engage in collective bargaining.

On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University, Case 02-RC-143012, holding that private college and university student assistants — including undergraduates — who perform services in connection with their studies, are “employees” under Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore have the right to bargain collectively.

In doing so, the Board overruled Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), which held that student assistants are not statutory employees. The ruling directly contradicts the Board’s treatment of students under the Act for nearly all of its 80-year history.

Because Section 2(3) does not adequately define the term “employee,” the Board looked to common law agency principles to determine whether student assistants are covered. The Board thus found that even when the economic relationship “may seem comparatively slight” relative to the academic relationship, “the payment of compensation, in conjunction with the employer’s control, suffices to establish an employment relationship[.]” The Board found no compelling statutory or policy considerations to hold otherwise. The decision applies only to private schools and universities.

Member Miscimarra, the Board’s lone dissenter, argued that the relationship between the students and the university is “primarily educational,” and thus does not fit “the complexities of industrial life.” The dissent warned that the Majority disregarded “what hangs in the balance when a student’s efforts to attain [a] … degree are governed by the risks and uncertainties of collective bargaining and the potential resort to economic weapons” such as strikes, slowdowns, lockouts, and litigation.