Undergraduate resident advisors usually wield a lot of power over university residence halls and those who occupy them. You likely know this already if you were ever a college freshman living in the dorms and received a write-up or warning from your RA. But, for those who do not know, RAs – who are often only slightly older than the college students they oversee – are essentially there to supervise their peers living in dorms and make sure nothing (too) crazy happens. Last week, however, an NLRB Regional Director decided to give RAs at Reed College a right many of them probably did not even consider until recently: the opportunity to unionize.
Pursuant to the Board’s 2016 Columbia University Decision, which entitled university student workers at private campuses – both graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants – the right to collectively bargaining, the Regional Director found these RAs were statutory employees under the Act and ordered an election take place. The Regional Director concluded RAs provide a service for compensation, are under Reed College’s control and supervision and, ultimately, that there is no compelling policy reason to exclude them from coverage under the Act.
On the other hand, Reed College argued that Columbia University was wrongly decided and, actually, was not applicable because RAs are not teaching or research assistants. The College also argued that the RAs’ main focus was supporting and mentoring fellow students and that this aspect of their job was inseparable from their role as students, not employees. Notwithstanding these legitimate points, the Regional Director unsurprisingly rejected the College’s arguments. This was unsurprising because Columbia University is still the law of the land and RAs, like teaching and research assistants, are paid for their services, apply and train for the position, and undergo performance reviews. Thus, RAs would have likely garnered a similar finding by the Board who decided Columbia University.
Until the Board finds the proper vehicle to overturn this Obama-era precedent, we can likely expect other subsets of students paid for services at private universities to attempt to unionize as well. Still, the clock is ticking on Columbia University and this fact is not lost on unions attempting to organize students across the country. Indeed, unions at several private universities are now electing to withdraw their representation petitions for fear that a Republican-controlled Board will use their case to overturn Columbia University. Instead, these unions will attempt to pressure these institutions and seek voluntary recognition, a somewhat baffling choice because private universities have long rejected this option and will likely continue to do so (with the exception of only one private institution).
This union action is likely only delaying the inevitable, but, in the end, only time will tell whether Board precedent concerning higher education organizing will flip-flop once again. Stay tuned.
Carlos A. Torrejon is a former NLRB Attorney and an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Morristown office.