NLRB Wants New Rule To Prevent Student Teaching Assistants From Joining Unions

Flip flops NLRB union graduate students 2019Summer may be over, but the National Labor Relations Board isn’t ready to put away its flip flops.

It’s been a busy few months, with the NLRB releasing a number of recent decisions that change Obama-era interpretations of federal labor law.

On Friday, the Board released a new proposed rule that would declare college teaching assistants to be non-employees, meaning they cannot form unions. The proposed rule would declare these graduate students to be just students under federal labor law, not both students and employees of their institutions. The new rule would apply even though the students are paid.

The Board’s explanation for the proposed rule is that graduate students are primarily students and the paid work is primarily for an educational purpose.

If this rule were to pass, it would reverse a 2016 NLRB decision, which found that Columbia University students assistants were also employees of the school because “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

The 2016 decision reversed a 2004 George W. Bush-era Board decision, which found that Brown University student assistants were not employees because their relationship to the university was primarily educational.

The 2004 decision reversed a 2000 Clinton-era Board decision finding that NYU graduate student assistants were employees that could form unions.

The 2000 decision reversed a 1974 decision, which found that Stanford University graduate students were not employees because their paid roles as student assistants was primarily educational.

I think you see what’s happening here.

The new development is just that the Board has proposed a new rule. The rule, if enacted, would change the offical interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act to be that graduate student assistants are not employees. Notably, despite the flip flops listed above, the statute has not changed. But depending on which political party has a majority on the 5-member Board (currently 4-member Board), the Board’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act changes and changes again.

The current Board seems to think that by making its changes through rulemaking, rather than through Board decisions on actual cases, maybe its interpretation will be stickier in the long run. I doubt it.

Even if the proposed rule passes, it seems inevitable that whenever the next Democratic-majority Board is in place, it will switch back to the view that graduate student assistants are employees and can form unions.

There’s a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, then the Board can decide whether to pass it as written, modify it, or scrap it.

In any event, students are back in school, and so far the weather seems good enough to keep using flip flops — at least in Washington, D.C., at the National Labor Relations Board.

See you at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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