The National Labor Relations Board, in Columbia University, issued a 3-1 decision yesterday holding that graduate, and undergraduate, student assistants are common law employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act and therefore are eligible to organize and bargain collectively under federal labor law.  In so doing, the Board overruled its prior determination in Brown University.  Board Member Miscimarra wrote a lengthy dissent, arguing that the educational nature of the relationship between student and educational institution should dictate that student assistants are not employees and therefore they should not be eligible to organize and bargain collectively.

After much speculation, and following an invitation for briefing in December 2015, the NLRB rejected the Brown holding that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because they are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”  The Board first noted that it has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees.  The Board applied a common law test and indicated that when student assistants perform “work” at the direction of a college or university, for which they are compensated, a common law employment relationship will be deemed to exist and the students will be eligible to organize and bargain collectively.

The Board indicated that the new test will apply to all student assistants, including graduate assistants engaged in research funded by external grants (and subject to the conditions of those grants).  The Board also determined that the petitioned-for bargaining unit at Columbia — which included graduate students, terminal Master’s degree students, and undergraduate students — constituted an appropriate unit and that none of the petitioned-for classifications consisted of temporary employees who should be excluded from the unit.  Finally, the Board remanded the case to the Regional Director for consideration of whether student assistants not currently performing their assistant duties should be eligible to vote based upon a continuing expectation of future common law employment.

The Board’s decision was long the subject of speculation and has been anticipated by many commentators.  In the wake of the decision, colleges and universities should anticipate increased organizing activity on their campuses and will have the obligation to bargain with units comprised of student assistants if they are recognized after an NLRB election.  Given the breadth of the Board’s decision, and the potential units that could be petitioned for by unions, this decision has the potential to represent a significant challenge if broad units of student assistants are voted in and certified under NLRB procedures.