In 2016, in Columbia University, the NLRB held that students at private institutions have a right to organize. The 3-1 decision overruled a 2004 decision in Brown University, which found that graduate assistants were not employees and thus did not have a statutory right to unionize. Since the Columbia University decision, the NLRB’s makeup has shifted — and it is uncertain whether the NLRB under the Trump Administration would still side with student workers.
In 2018, unions at Yale University, University of Chicago, and Boston College seeking to represent student workers withdrew their petitions for recognition pending review by the NLRB. The unions explained that they would rather seek voluntary recognition from the schools than risk an unfavorable decision from the NLRB under the Trump Administration.
Last month, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (“UGSDW”) continued this trend, backing down from its attempt to unionize student workers at Grinnell College in Iowa. In November, student workers at Grinnell overwhelming voted in favor of unionization, and the NLRB ordered an election. Grinnell appealed the decision, arguing that the NLRB should reconsider whether student employees have a right to organize. The UGSDW explained that it was withdrawing its petition “in recognition of the national consequences of our fight, and the flimsy possibility of a fair ruling before the Trump labor board.”
For now, Columbia University is still good law, and student workers still have the right to unionize. At the same time, however, it appears safe to say that unions are strategically avoiding any case that would allow the Trump-era NLRB to overturn this decision. Whether the unions’ strategy, and Columbia University, can last until the next presidential administration is yet to be seen. Stay tuned for updates.