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Labor Day: Teaching Assistants are Employees

As we all return after Labor Day weekend, one group has more than just the long weekend to be thankful for. On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board found that federal labor law covers graduate and undergraduate teaching/research assistants.

In Trustees of Columbia University, the NLRB reversed a long standing position and now says teaching assistants in private universities are employees. The major question in the case was whether or not students that also work in connection with studies are statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The decision means that teaching assistants in private universities can now unionize and have collective bargaining rights. Prior to this decision, the prevailing idea was that a graduate assistant is primarily a student, and deemed only to be a student without federal labor law protections.

The decision acknowledges that labor law strongly supports a policy of collective bargaining for workers. It protects the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and the right to designate representatives of their own choosing. Combining this labor policy with the ordinary and statutory definition of an employee, the NLRB decided that teaching assistants are employees that can unionize. In essence, the decision said that a teaching assistant can be both a student and an employee without disrupting higher education.

Not everyone agrees that the decision will completely benefit students. As the dissent and other commentators noted, teaching assistants will now be covered by other federal laws that could inhibit sexual harassment investigations. For example, if your son or daughter is sexually harassed by a teaching assistant, then the university cannot require teaching assistant witnesses to keep the investigation confidential. A son or daughters that is sexually harassed will not always be able to keep their witness statement confidential from the union. 

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