Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Labor Board Says College Athletes Are "Employees" Who Can Unionize

Sometimes, the wrongheadedness of the National Labor Relations Board is just astounding.  Today, a regional director of that agency ruled that Northwestern University athletes are actually employees of the school and should be allowed to unionize.  (link to decision available here)  If the ruling is upheld, it would mean that student-athletes would have the right to bargain collectively with management (i.e., the school’s administration) over their “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”

We’ll update as appropriate, but here’s what Workplace Update knows right now about this stunning development:

The NLRB’s director in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled that the players “fall squarely with the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of ‘employee’ when one considers the common law definition of ‘employee.’”  Ohr went on to say that the players can vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which is the organization that, along with the United Steelworkers Union, brought the case to the NLRB.  Ohr’s ruling sets in motion a secret-ballot election to determine whether the students should be part of the union.

For its part, the university has vowed to appeal the ruling to the five-member Board in Washington.  (FYI, three out of the five members are union-friendly appointees of President Obama.)  In a written statement posted on the school’s website (here), vice president for university relations Alan Cubbage said, “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. … Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

It seems pretty obvious to a lot of people, including Workplace Update, that there is a fundamental difference between students who are compensated with grant-in-aid scholarships and other unionized employees, such as autoworkers and coal miners.  As Mark Twain noted, however, it's differences of opinion that make horse races.  Because of the high-profile nature of college sports, this polarizing dispute promises to attract a lot of attention going forward.

P.S.  It will be interesting to see how the NCAA weighs in on this development.  And there are currently multiple lawsuits attacking the non-paid status of college athletes from different angles, including a recently-filed action against the NCAA and its five largest conferences (ESPN article here) alleging that the non-paid status of student athletes violates antitrust laws.

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