Football players at Northwestern University Tuesday announced plans to form a labor union, and have submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board. Cornell ILR School Professor Risa Lieberwitz, an associate of the Worker Institute at Cornell, discusses the impact of the Northwestern University football players’ unionization effort.

Lieberwitz says:

“A National Labor Relations Board decision that designates Northwestern University football players as employees could have a wide-reaching impact on possible unionization by other college athletes.

“Public universities are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, but the outcome of this case could also influence state labor board interpretations of collective bargaining laws covering public employees.

“Whether private college athletes have the right to unionize depends on whether they are ‘employees’ under the National Labor Relations Act. In many ways, the athletes look more like employees than like students, since their athletic activities are not academic courses. Athletes have concerns about fair treatment, health and safety that are similar to employee working conditions.

“The National Labor Relations Board has not yet considered whether college athletes are employees. But, in other university-related cases, the board has decided that medical interns and residents are employees, even though their work is part of their medical school education. The board has held that graduate student research and teaching assistants are students, but not employees.”

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