In a setback to private colleges and universities, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on August 23, 2016 that student assistants have unionization and collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. In so ruling, the Board reversed its 2004 decision in Brown University, in which it held that graduate students are not employees under the NLRA, and therefore do not have unionization rights. The immediate effect of the new Columbia University holding is that graduate and undergraduate student assistants will be able to unionize. The far-reaching decision has the potential to transform the student assistant-university relationship, as well as the collegiate learning environment.
While graduate student unions are commonplace at many public colleges and universities (as students’ unionization and collective bargaining rights at public institutions are governed by state law), the Columbia decision expands unionization and collective bargaining rights to student assistants at private colleges and universities, including to undergraduate student assistants and to student assistants who receive research funding from external grants. This decision – which fundamentally injects NLRA considerations into the relationship between student and university – has important implications for private colleges and universities and their employment of student assistants.