NLRB Proposed Rule Would Deny Grad Students Right to Unionize

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

September 26, 2019

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has published a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in the federal register that would exempt undergraduate and graduate students who perform services for financial compensation in connection with their studies from the NLRB's reach.

In the proposed rule, the NLRB returned to previous holdings that, since the relationship of teaching assistants and research assistants with their schools is primarily as students, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not cover them.

The proposed rule follows a series of rulings dating back to the 1970s that have swung against and in favor of the position that students are statutory employees under the NLRA.

In the most recent ruling, Columbia University, the Obama era NLRB ruled in favor of graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants unionizing and bargaining collectively over working conditions. Following that 2016 ruling, students at several universities organized, including:

  • Columbia;
  • Harvard;
  • Brandeis;
  • Tufts; and
  • The University of Chicago.

The proposed rule is one of several that the NLRB announced plans for in May that address issues that the Trump administration has prioritized. At that time, the NLRB stated its intention to engage in more rulemaking as a means to provide consistency in labor from one administration to the next.

"In the past 19 years, the Board has changed its stance on this issue three times," said NLRB Chairman John F. Ring. "This rulemaking is intended to obtain maximum input on this issue from the public, and then to bring stability to this important area of federal labor law."

The Board will accept comments for 60 days (until November 23) and also will permit parties to submit replies to comments for 63 days.