Higher Education Law Report
Is the NLRB’s Brown University Decision on Its Last Leg?
May 12, 2014
By: John Gaal
The National Labor Relations Board’s treatment of college and university students as “employees” covered by the National Labor Relations Act has been the subject of a tortured history. In the Fall of 2000, in a case involving NYU, the NLRB held that graduate assistants could be employees under the Act and therefore subject to the Act’s protections for organizational activity and collective bargaining. Thereafter, in a number of cases, including one involving Brown University ("Brown I"), the Board rejected arguments that the work of research assistants, teaching assistants and similar graduate student positions were closely tied to their degree requirements such that it constituted more of an educational, rather than economic relationship and concluded that graduate assistants could be employees under the Act. Then, in 2004, in a second case involving Brown University ("Brown II"), the Board made a sharp return to its earlier position, expressly overruling NYU, and deciding that graduate student teaching and research assistants are not statutory “employees” under the NLRA. Based on Brown II, NYU withdrew recognition from its graduate assistants who had earlier voted for representation by the UAW. Eventually, a later group of graduate students organized again and petitioned for a union representation election at NYU in Manhattan and NYU’s then recently-acquired Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn (separate election petitions were filed in the Manhattan and Brooklyn Regional Offices of the NLRB). The petitions were dismissed at the Region level, without a hearing, on the authority of the Brown II decision. The petitions were remanded for further consideration by the Board, but after a hearing, the petitions were again dismissed at the Region level on the authority of Brown II. The Board granted a request for review of the dismissal and asked for amicus briefs on whether Brown II should be overruled, setting the stage for yet another reversal . However, in November of 2013, NYU and the UAW reached an agreement, pursuant to which NYU agreed to recognize and bargain with the union if a majority of graduate assistants voted in favor of joining the union. The pending Board petitions were subsequently dismissed as moot, removing at least temporarily the possibility that the Board could once again reverse course and overrule Brown II. As we noted in an earlier post, the Board granted Northwestern University’s request for review of the recent Regional Director’s decision directing an election in a unit of grant-in-aid scholarship football players at Northwestern. Thus it seemed the stage was set for the Board to revisit the student/employee issue yet again. Yesterday, the Board issued a Notice and Invitation to File Briefs to interested parties in the Northwestern case. The Notice expressly raises six questions that parties were invited to brief. Question 2 is:
Insofar as the Board’s decision in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), may be applicable to this case, should the Board adhere to, modify, or overrule the test of employee status applied in that case, and if so, on what basis?
It is now evident that the Board indeed has found the vehicle it needs to once again flip flop on the issue of students/employees.