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NLRB Avoids Involving Grad Assistants in Athlete Decision

In a highly publicized case in which the AAUP filed an amicus brief, the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction (.pdf) over the Northwestern University football players’ petition seeking union representation rendering the players unable to unionize under the auspices of the NLRB. The Board, however, explicitly limited its decision to the unusual circumstances of the case, avoiding broader questions involving the unionization of graduate student assistants and others. The Board concluded that asserting jurisdiction over the Northwestern University scholarship football players would not promote stability in labor relations due to the unusual facts of the case, which involved unionizing a single football team rather than teams on a league wide basis, and the fact that the NCAA and the Big Ten conference maintain substantial control over individual teams, the overwhelming majority of which are from public colleges and universities over which the Board cannot assert jurisdiction. The Board emphasized that “this case involves novel and unique circumstances,” repeatedly highlighting the narrow and limited nature of the decision. The AAUP, in response to an invitation from the Board, had filed an amicus brief arguing that graduate student assistants are “employees” with rights to unionize under the NLRA. In its decision the Board did not address this issue and instead explained that “scholarship players bear little resemblance to . . . graduate students,” and that it was not expressing an opinion on its prior graduate student assistant cases. Nonetheless, graduate student assistants at The New School and elsewhere have recently sought to unionize, and the AAUP looks forward to again filing amicus briefs supporting graduate student assistants’ rights to unionize under the NLRA.

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Publication Date: 
Wednesday, August 19, 2015