On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a 3-to-1 decision that declares that graduate and undergraduate students who work for their universities as a mandatory part of their education are employees with rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This case overrules a previous decision made by the Board over one decade ago, in which the NLRB held that allowing graduate students to collectively bargain would greatly impair the students’ education. Now, the Board has decided that its previous decision was not based on “convincing justification[s]” to “[exclude] an entire category of workers” from the protections of the NLRA.
The NLRB reasoned that the definition of “employee,” as provided in the NLRA, included all employees unless otherwise specified, and that students employed by their universities were not contained within the list of exceptions. The Board further went on to say that students should be treated as employees of the university when they perform compensable work for the school, which can include serving as a teaching or research assistant, even if the work is done as part of a requirement for the student’s degree.
Many programs, especially graduate ones, require students to complete some form of student teaching. Although these students can receive scholarships, stipends, or even health insurance, the amount they receive generally is not enough to cover normal living expenses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for a graduate teaching assistant is about $30,800 per year, which places many students in a tough position when it comes to paying bills, including tuition.
Implications of the Decision
The Board’s decision to classify student research and teaching assistants as employees gives student workers the protection of the NLRA, which allows them to unionize and collectively bargain with their universities for higher wages and benefits.
Students and supporters of the decision feel as though working students will finally be provided with the rights they deserve for the services they provide. Not only will these students be able to complete their degrees, but they will also be able to do so while earning fair wages and benefits, which could greatly lower their amount of student debt.
Opponents to the ruling have argued that, by allowing teaching and research assistants to bargain over the terms of their work, including compensation, the educational aspect of these programs would be completely undermined. They also fear that negotiations will create a divide between universities, professors, and their students. Furthermore, the dissenting Board member claims that the decision directly interferes with a university’s educational requirements, and could “wreak havoc” on students’ education if student unions conduct strikes or lockouts.
Whether or not you agree with the NLRB’s decision, this case demonstrates the Board’s continued trend towards expanding employee rights to new areas.
This blog post was written by Elizabeth Driscoll, a law clerk at Jules Halpern Associates LLC.