In yet another reversal of precedent, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that students who perform work for a university for which they are compensated can form and join labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act.  Key to the Board’s holding was that these students, including teaching assistants and research assistants, were more akin to employees, as opposed to well, students.  Yeah, we know.

Now, the students will have the opportunity to participate in an election to determine if they will be represented by a labor union.  There are some issues that remain unresolved, including who should be considered part of the unit, given the transient nature of these positions.  The Columbia University teaching and research assistants will then have the opportunity to vote in a representational election.

The decision does not come as a surprise to most observers, many of whom believed that the Democratic majority on the Board would take the opportunity to reverse the 2004 Brown University decision, which had held that graduate assistants were primarily students and not employees covered by the Act.  In Columbia University, the Board noted that the Brown decision was not grounded in the language of the Act, because no specific exemption exists under the Act for students.  The Board held that the Brown University decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act.”  To us, this begs the question – are they really workers?

Importantly, the decision applies only to private universities covered by the Act, and not public universities that are governed by state labor law.  Those universities who are covered will need to take proactive steps to evaluate their teaching and research assistants, both graduate and undergraduate.  While for many, the decision may have limited practical impact, it is likely that one or two negative consequences will flow from the decision: there will be fewer opportunities for teaching and research assistants; and/or the cost of tuition will increase.