The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has made decisions affecting private, nonprofit universities for decades. The NLRB has applied the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, the NLRB has nearly exclusive authority to define the term “employee,” so long as those defined as employees do not contradict language in the NLRA.

Teaching and Research Assistants are Statutory Employees under the NLRA

In late August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concluded that graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants are statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and are entitled to collective bargaining rights. A previous decision held that students could not be statutory employees based on reasoning that their relationships with a university were primarily educational rather than economical. However, pursuant to this new decision, even if a student’s work is funded by external grant monies, the student is covered by the rights and protections in the NLRA. Temporary employees are not covered under the NLRA. However, the NLRB found that graduate, master’s and undergraduate student workers, teaching assistants, and research assistants employed by Columbia University who appeared before the Board to appeal for collective bargaining rights were not temporary workers.

No language in the NLRA prohibits student assistants from falling under the Act, and the majority of the Board found no reason to exclude them from the protections of the Act in this recent decision. As such, student workers, teaching assistants and research assistants at private colleges and universities have the right to unionize and collectively bargain.


The NLRB did emphasize the difference between student athletes and student workers, noting that the workers are not within and governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that addresses the rights and responsibilities of collegiate athletes. The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over state-run schools, and the NLRB has previously declined to exercise jurisdiction over student athletes at private schools because the overwhelming majority of colleges participating in the NCAA are state-run.

Although the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over state-run schools, many states that allow public employees to collectively bargain rely on NLRB decisions in matters of state labor law. Accordingly, similar unionizing rights for student workers may come to some state-run schools as well.

For more information on the collective bargaining rights of student workers or the responsibilities of private colleges and universities to their student workers, research assistants, and teaching assistants, contact experienced employment lawyers at Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis, LLP today.