Graduate Students

‘The Days of the Brown U. Ruling Are Numbered’

March 27, 2014

The ruling that Northwestern University football players are employees with the right to organize might signal that the environment is ripe for graduate students to revisit the legal question of whether they, too, have the right to form unions.

"Today’s decision highlights what big businesses universities are," William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said on Wednesday. Mr. Gould, who is also an emeritus law professor at Stanford University, said Wednesday’s ruling, by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, does nothing to require the labor board to re-examine a 2004 decision that involved graduate-student assistants at Brown University.

But the new decision, he said, "will give teaching assistants more courage and confidence than they previously had" to challenge that decade-old ruling, which found that graduate-student assistants at private universities are not employees and, therefore, do not have the right to form unions.

"The days of the Brown University ruling are numbered," Mr. Gould said.

In the Northwestern decision, which the university said it planned to appeal, the regional office of the NLRB drew distinctions between scholarship football players and graduate-student assistants in the Brown case. The Northwestern ruling says that the football players have more of an economic relationship than an academic one with their university, while the graduate assistants were deemed by the Brown decision to be "primarily students" whose relationship with the university was academic in nature.

Mr. Gould said that legal precedent could change.

"The fact that the rubric of education is placed upon teaching and research assistants does not mean they are not employees, particularly when they are under the control of others and receiving compensation for it," he said. "I see the Northwestern case as one step in the road to recognizing that universities are employers, and that those who work for them and are directed by them are employees."

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, also said the Northwestern ruling could end up giving the labor board a chance to look at its Brown University decision again.

"This decision is important for both universities and graduate students because it has the potential to clarify and re-examine the Brown University decision," he said.