The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has withdrawn a proposed rule that would have exempted graduate students from the definition of “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  Under the rule proposed in 2019, discussed in more detail here, the NLRB would have declared the relationship of graduate students with their university to be educational in nature and would have effectively barred graduate students from unionizing under most circumstances.

The NLRB has stated that it is withdrawing the proposed rule in order to focus on “competing agency priorities, including the adjudication of unfair labor practice and representation cases currently in progress.” However, it also reflects another move away from Trump-era priorities, even before President Biden has appointed a single new member to the Board.

With the withdrawal of the proposed rule, the NLRB will continue to follow Obama-era precedent on the status of student workers as employees under the NLRA. In 2016, the Board held that graduate and undergraduate student teaching and research assistants are statutory employees under the NLRA, eligible to unionize.

The withdrawal of the proposed rule coupled with the impending change in the composition of the NLRB means that colleges and universities can expect a resurgence of organizing efforts by graduate student unions, particularly as many schools begin to return to typical on-campus operations.