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NLRB No Longer Pursuing Rule to Exclude Student Workers from Protection

In 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) proposed a new rule preventing student teachers and researchers at a private college or university from being categorized as employees.

The NLRB’s position on the inclusion of student workers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) had been fairly consistent until 2000; students were not employees. As a result, they did not receive the protections of the NLRA. Protection under the NLRA would allow them to form unions to advocate for their rights with the institutions. In 2000, the NLRB held for the first time that some graduate assistant students qualified as employees. But four years later, the NLRB changed course, again finding students were not employees. In Columbia University (2016), the Board held the NLRA did protect the employment aspects of the student relationship to the higher education institution. That decision remains valid.

During the prior presidential administration, the NLRB sought to codify the exclusion of students from NLRA protection. However, the Board recently withdrew the proposed exclusion without any explanation or position statement. Student-workers applauded the decision as it allows them to attempt to unionize and collectively bargain with their institutions. Generally, these graduate student workers seek fair wages, expanded healthcare, independent grievance procedures, and childcare support. Since the Columbia decision, there are 16 new graduate student employee bargaining units at private colleges. Eight private universities have contracts applicable to graduate student employees.