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NLRB Rules Student Assistants At Private Universities Are Employees

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Students working as research or teaching assistants at private colleges and universities are now considered employees under the law, this according to a ruling today by the National Labor Relations Board. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports the decision went further than expected and includes undergraduate workers, too.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: For years, students working in labs and classrooms argued their work contributes to their universities and therefore, they should be treated as employees who are eligible to unionize. Private universities argued that work was, in fact, part of the students' training. Peter McDonough is general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents. He says he was shocked that the board included undergraduates in its ruling.

PETER MCDONOUGH: It sweeps away any concern about whether an individual is primarily a student.

NOGUCHI: For decades, the law agreed with universities. But in 2000, it sided with students and has since gone back and forth, sometimes agreeing with the students and sometimes with the universities. This latest ruling came after the United Auto Workers, which is working with students, petitioned the labor board for yet another change. In issuing its 3-1 decision, the board said not recognizing the students as legal employees deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the National Labor Relations Act without a convincing justification. Bennett Carpenter is a literature Ph.D. candidate and student organizer at Duke.

BENNETT CARPENTER: Oh man (laughter), it's going to mean so much that the NLRB is going to recognize what we know as graduate students already, that we are workers and we deserve the same rights and opportunities as other workers.

NOGUCHI: Carpenter says students around the country are poised to form unions. That would enable the students to collectively bargain for dental care, worker's compensation and other benefits they currently lack. If universities do not recognize student unions, the board's latest ruling could end up challenged in court. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.