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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

NLRB Grants Students Right to Unionize

September 1, 2016

On August 23, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a 3-1 decision granting student teaching and research assistants at private universities and colleges the legal protection to unionize.

The case began in December 2014, when The Graduate Workers of Columbia—affiliated with the United Auto Workers union—filed a petition with the NLRB seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants. 

The Columbia ruling overturns the 2004 Brown University decision against graduate student collective bargaining, which the NLRB now says “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the act without a convincing justification.”

In the Columbia decision, the NLRB states:

“Thus, we hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the [National Labor Relations] Act. We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants. Applying the new standard to the facts here, consistent with the Board’s established approach in representation cases, we conclude (1) that all of the petitioned-for student assistant classifications consist of statutory employees; (2) that the petitioned-for bargaining unit (comprising graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and undergraduate students) is an appropriate unit; and (3) that none of the petitioned-for classifications consists of temporary employees who may not be included in the unit.”

For private institutions, the Columbia decision could have significant impact on how private institutions address matters of education, financial aid, student employment, and the relationship between faculty and students. 

It is anticipated that the Columbia decision will be challenged in court. It is unclear, however, how long that will take because NLRB processes require that a union election must first be held prior to the decision being challenged.

For public institutions, state laws govern students’ ability to unionize.   


Mary Bachinger
Director, Tax Policy