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NLRB To Propose Rules on Graduate Student Employment Status

Higher Education Labor & Employment

We previously reported, in 2016, that the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued a decision in Columbia University that paved the way for graduate students to unionize at private higher education institutions. In the years since, under the current Republican-controlled Board, unions have feared the NLRB would overturn that ruling. Those fears may be coming to fruition as, recently, the NLRB announced that it will soon release proposed rules establishing a standard for determining whether graduate students qualify as “employees” under the NLRA.

Graduate student employment status is an issue that has fluctuated several times over the course of the past 20 years. In 2000, the NLRB first formally granted graduate student assistants the right to unionize. That decision was quickly overturned, however, in 2004, only to be granted again in 2016. The NLRB’s most recent announcement, that it plans to propose rules on the subject, is likely an indication that the Board hopes to limit, if not informally overturn, the ruling of the Columbia University case and prevent graduate students at private colleges and universities from unionizing—returning graduate students to their pre-Obama-era employment status.

It should be noted, however, that here in Illinois, Governor Pritzker will likely sign House Bill 0253 into law later this year. This bill, which passed both the house and the Senate on May 21, 2019, expands the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act to include graduate students within the definition of an “educational employee” or “employee.” This will extend the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining to the thousands of public college and university students across the State.

For now, private Colleges and Universities are reminded that, currently, graduate students may unionize under the NLRA. Colleges and Universities are encouraged to continue to speak with their student workers to determine their needs and address them in a timely manner. Colleges and Universities are also encouraged to comment on the proposed rules when they are ultimately published later this year. We will continue to monitor the status of these rules and keep you updated on any developments.