NLRB Extends ‘Microunit’ Concept to Efforts to Organize Faculty Members

The National Labor Relations Board has declared non-tenure-track faculty members at Vanderbilt University eligible to form separate collective-bargaining units for their respective schools, marking the first time that faculty members will be eligible to gain union representation in such a piecemeal manner.

In a ruling issued on Wednesday, Lisa Y. Henderson, acting director of the NLRB’s regional office in Atlanta, held that non-tenure-track faculty members at separate Vanderbilt schools were not a distinct enough subset of the faculty to be eligible to form a single collective-bargaining unit. Those within distinct schools could vote to form separate bargaining units, however, because they shared several characteristics. Those included their location, their wage and benefit packages, their supervisors, the skills they need to teach, and, broadly defined, the academic departments in which they teach.

Within Vanderbilt’s college of arts and science, college of education, music school, and divinity school, non-tenure track faculty members “are readily available as a group and share a sufficient community of interest so as to be appropriate units for the purpose of collective bargaining,” the decision said.

The Vanderbilt ruling is the second by an NLRB official to allow academic employees to organize by academic division into what are known as microunits. It is the first such decision to extend that right beyond graduate employees, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

In a separate decision issued in January, the director of the NLRB’s regional office in Boston ruled that graduate teaching and research assistants at Yale University could hold separate votes on forming unions for each of nine academic departments. That decision, which Yale has appealed, was seen as opening the door to the creation of small graduate-employee unions at universities where campuswide votes on their unionization were likely to fail.

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