Since 2000, the National Labor Relations Board has taken the position that some graduate students who are paid for teaching and research functions by private colleges and universities qualify as employees eligible to organize and bargain with their employers. On September 23, the NLRB issued proposed regulations that would overturn this precedent, and define most graduate students as outside the protections of federal labor laws.

The proposed rules would exclude students who are paid for duties related to their course of study from the definition of employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The board said that these paid duties are incidental to the students’ primary academic relationship with the college or university. The NLRB declined to rely on the common law definition of employment in order to make this determination.

Graduate student employees at public colleges and universities are excluded from federal collective bargaining rights, but state laws may extend similar protections. The proposed rules would have no impact on public colleges and universities. The NLRB is accepting comments on the proposed regulations through November 22, 1019.