Student Library Workers Vote to Organize, and Their Right to Do So is Upheld

In 2017, the student library employees at the University of Chicago voted to organize and work under a collective bargaining agreement.  The 200 workers sought higher wages and a more stable schedule, amongst other benefits, for the work they were doing while enrolled at the private university.  While unionization is popular at most public universities and colleges, it is only now gaining traction at private institutions across the country, and very few unions comprised of student workers exist, even after the Columbia University decision by the NLRB in 2016. 

However, the University objected to the certification of the union, claiming that because the work of the student was temporary and intermittent, and sought a hearing.  However, the NLRB, with three of the current president’s nominees on the board, refused the University a hearing, stating it did not present sufficient evidence to substantively defend its position in a hearing.  The University only provided a case that had been previously ruled upon by the board stating students did not possess collective bargaining rights, and no evidence that ran contrary to the current law regarding student workers.    

The University had intended to argue that due to the temporary nature of their employment, student workers did not possess collective bargaining rights.  This argument flies in the face of the NLRB’s decision in Columbia University.  The University appealed the NLRB decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three judge panel only ruled on the Board’s decision to deny the University a hearing.  In rejecting the appeal, the court not only said that the University’s position was irreconcilable with current law, but that the University did not even request the court to override the precedential decision of the Board. 

The Seventh Circuit then went through the history of NLRB decisions pertaining to the collective bargaining rights of student workers, which have changed with the political tides over the course of the last five decades.  Ultimately, in 2016, the Board decided that students “who have a common-law employment relationship with their university” are employees entitled to collective bargaining rights.  In its request for a hearing to the Board, the university provided no evidence that was inconsistent with the Board’s 2016 decision, and its request for a decision was rightly rejected, per the court. 

In a last gasp effort, the University attempted to argue that the Board misapplied its own rules, in rejecting its request for a hearing.  As a student of previous administrative law decisions, this is rarely a winning argument. 

For now, the rule stands that student workers for public and private academic institutions across the country have the right to unionize.  As the board has vacillated between allowing and forbidding students to organize for the last fifty years, that right may not be certain. 

Unions are constantly seeking different professions and work environments in which they can gain a foothold.  It is important that you understand your workers’ and your own rights when an organizing campaign comes to your workplace.  If you, or your organization need assistance in working through organizing efforts, contact the Wiley Law Office, for labor advice that works. 

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