On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision in The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW. The NLRB decided that graduate and undergraduate student assistants are common law “employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB has flip-flopped on this issue several times starting in 1974 (The Leland Stanford Junior University (214 NRLB 621) which first held student workers should be excluded from the statutory definition of “employees”, overruled in part in 1999 with regard to student interns, residents and fellows at a Boston Medical Center teaching hospital (330 NLRB 152). In 2000, the Board first held that university graduate student assistants were employees under the Act. In 2004, the Board decided in Brown University that graduate student assistants were not “employees”.
The impact of the NLRB’s most recent Columbia University decision is that student assistants are “employees” and, as such, they are eligible to organize and bargain collectively under federal labor law. The Board expressly overruled its prior Brown University and Leland Stanford decisions.
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