A movement toward adjunct unions is sweeping university and college campuses across the nation. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees of private institutions of higher education the right to self-organize and engage in concerted action for the purpose of collective bargaining. (And some state collective bargaining provisions may grant collective organizing and bargaining rights to employees of public institutions.) How should you respond if your employees want to exercise these rights?

What to do when employees start organizing

As an employer, you first need to determine your institution’s position on unionization. Some employers are not opposed to unionization and decide not to oppose employee organizing. On the other hand, many employers view unionization as inconsistent with the goals of the institution and an inadequate, inefficient means for addressing employee concerns.

In an ideal world, this decision should be thoughtfully considered and made before any employee organizing campaign begins. Once you determine the institutions’ position on unionization, your administration and/or points of contact should be instructed and trained on how to respond in light of the institution’s goals. An institution should strive for a consistent, unified approach when fielding questions from employees and the media.

Regardless of whether you support or oppose unionization, your school should develop a plan consistent with NLRA rules – or, if you are a public institution, other applicable collective bargaining rules.

For example, if you choose to accept the union, keep in mind that the NLRA prohibits you from engaging in certain actions, such as dominating the collective-bargaining process or favoring one union or another. This means helping the employees organize or giving financial support to the union is a violation of the NLRA.

If, on the other hand, you choose to oppose the union, make sure to express your views in an objective way. Employers violate the NLRA if they engage in what are considered unfair labor practices. In general, an employer cannot:

  • Interfere with or restrain employees from self-organizing
  • Coerce employees to not engage in concerted action, such as by threatening termination, layoffs, or discipline
  • Dominate or interfere with the labor organization – the employer cannot hinderthe collective-bargaining process
  • Discourage union membership by discriminating against employees involved in the collective-bargaining process or promising employees certain benefits if they abandon the union
  • Refuse to bargain collectively with union representatives once a union is recognized.

Under the NLRA, a college or university can, however, hold meetings with employees and discuss its position. In the meetings, institutions can explain, among other things, the cons of joining a union, how the employee’s current wages and benefits compare to those of union employees, and the institution’s hope that the employees will vote against the union in the election.

A large body of law has developed interpreting the provisions of the NLRA in a variety of employment settings. The application of these principles to institutions of higher learning – and particularly to adjuncts, graduate assistants, and other positions unique to colleges and universities – is a relatively new development. Creating and implementing policies and related training are critical to navigating these legal requirements.