Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB” or “the Board”) reversed standing precedent and held that student assistants at private universities, including both graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants, qualify as “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) and may accordingly join unions to collectively bargain with their employers.  The case, Columbia University, 364 NLRB 90 (2016), offers yet another indication of the strength of the Board’s commitment to maintaining and expanding its presence in a rapidly changing employment environment – and its willingness to overrule itself to do so

In Columbia University, the Board considered a petition filed by the Graduate Workers of Columbia – GWC, UAW, to represent graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants employed by Columbia University, including those compensated through training grants.  The Regional Director who reviewed the petition before it reached the full Board denied the union’s request, relying on the NLRB’s decision twelve years earlier in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004).  The Brown University Board held that student assistants did not meet the statutory definition of “employees” entitled to organize under the NLRA because they “were primarily students, and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.”  But, the Board in the Columbia University case rejected this holding, stating that the student assistants had a “common law employment relationship,” in large part because the assistants were required to work to receive stipends and tuition assistance, Columbia University controlled this work, and the work “advance[d] a key business operation of the University: the education of undergraduate students.”  Moreover, the NLRB noted that because Columbia University maintained the right to terminate a student assistant due to poor performance, thereby eliminating his or her ability to collect a stipend or tuition assistance, the compensation paid to student assistants was not merely financial aid.  Combining these facts with its conclusion that defining student assistants as “employees” would further the goals of federal labor policy, the Board decided that reversal of Brown University was warranted.  This decision will affect an estimated 535,000 student assistants at private universities nationwide, and will likely have an impact on other employers connected to private universities, such as teaching hospitals.

While Columbia University directly affects student assistants and the educational institutions they work for, the implications of this decision do not stop at university doors.  In recent years, and particularly in 2016, the NLRB has exhibited a marked willingness to expand the scope of its authority and rights granted to employees.  Columbia University joins several recent cases following this trend, including decisions expanding the definition of “joint employer” and classifying social media posts as “protected activity” under the NLRA.  Employers should take note of the scope of Columbia University and other recent NLRB decisions, and be prepared for similar holdings in new industries in the future.  We will continue to monitor the subsequent interpretation of Columbia University and relevant NLRB rulings and provide further updates as appropriate.