U.S. House Scrutinizes NLRB Over Recent Actions on Higher Education

September 10, 2012

The Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives is scrutinizing the National Labor Relations Board for its recent actions on labor organizing in higher education.

The House’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training plans to join the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, which oversees the NLRB, in holding a hearing on the labor board on Wednesday. The title of the hearing—“Expanding the Power of Big Labor: The NLRB’s Growing Intrusion Into Higher Education”—suggests it will have an adversarial tone, in keeping with Republican complaints about recent attempts by the NLRB’s Democratic majority to reverse decisions issued when Republican appointees held most of the board’s seats.

In a statement announcing the hearing, the higher-education subcommittee says the NLRB is “taking steps to impose changes on private postsecondary institutions by re-examining its jurisdiction over graduate students, university faculty, and religious institutions,” and higher-education officials “are concerned the NLRB’s efforts to impinge into postsecondary schools could lead to reduced academic freedom and higher costs for students.”

Scheduled to testify are Michael P. Moreland, vice dean of the Villanova University School of Law; Peter M. Weber, dean of the Brown University Graduate School; Walter C. Hunter, who represents colleges in labor negoations as co-chairman of the higher-education practice group of the Littler Mendelson law firm; and Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO.

The NLRB is currently reconsidering a 2004 decision that precluded the unionization of graduate assistants at colleges. It is also rethinking its standards for determining which faculty members at private colleges should be classified as employees who can unionize and which should be classified as managers legally ineligible for union representation.

Last year it adopted new rules making it easier for private-college employees to unionize, and its regional officers have handed down decisions clearing the way for union elections at religious institutions such as Saint Xavier University and Duquesne University.

Because the partisan composition of the board and the nature of its rulings vary greatly, depending on who occupies the White House, both unions and their critics believe the future course of labor law will be heavily influenced by the outcome of this year’s presidential election.