The status of graduate assistants under the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) — are they employees eligible to organize or students without employee status under the Labor Law — has garnered considerable attention in recent years. New York University (“NYU”) graduate assistants will, for the second time in recent years, be represented by a union and negotiate their terms and conditions of employment due to a neutrally supervised vote held under an agreement between NYU and the United Auto Workers (“UAW”). Under that agreement, graduate, research, and teaching assistants at NYU have voted overwhelmingly (620 to 10) in favor of union representation by the UAW. The election occurred after the UAW and NYU reached agreement in November under which NYU agreed to remain neutral, refrain from participating in the election, and bargain in good faith for a contract if a majority voted in favor of representation. Under the same agreement, the UAW agreed to withdraw pending petitions for election before the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).
A unit of graduate assistants at NYU had previously voted in favor of representation in 2002 and the UAW had bargained a contract with NYU. During that first contract, the NLRB decided the Brown University case, 342 NLRB 42 (2004), holding that certain graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees and therefore were not legally entitled to organize under the Act. NYU withdrew recognition of the Union in response to the Brown decision. In 2010, the UAW filed several petitions seeking to represent graduate assistants and providing a vehicle for the NLRB to revisit the Brown ruling. The NLRB sought briefing from the parties and interested organizations concerning the employee status of graduate assistants. Many felt that Brown was likely to be overturned by the NLRB appointed by the Obama administration.
The agreement between NYU and the UAW resulted in the withdrawal of the NLRB proceeding. The NLRB has issued an unpublished decision indicating that it is granting the Union’s request to withdraw and now considers the review of the Brown decision to be “moot.”
Thus, NYU will enter into bargaining with the UAW for its graduate students. The broader issue of whether graduate students are employees from the NLRB’s perspective will have to wait for a new test case before the Board. In the interim, Brown remains governing law.