In a big victory for labor rights (and student rights), the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern athletes are eligible to form a union and called for a secret ballot election. Northwestern University spokesperson Alan K. Cubbage said the university would appeal the decision and declared: “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.” Appropriate or not, workers should get to decide if they unionize, not their bosses. And the notion that students can’t be employees will shock the millions of students who work in order to pay for college.
I’m a little surprised that the NLRB ruled in favor of the students, considering that the NLRB still doesn’t recognize graduate student teachers as employees. But I hope Northwestern will recognize a union of student athletes regardless of the legal obligations, just as the university recognizes the rights of academic freedom and free speech for faculty and students despite having no legal requirement to do so.
My one disagreement with the Northwestern unionizing effort was that it exclusively focused on football and men’s basketball, in order to use the revenue generated by these sports as proof that they’re workers. But profits by a business aren’t the defining characteristics of a worker, and all athletes should be able to form a union to protect their interests, not just the male athletes in the highest-profile sports. The NCAA tried to exploit this in a statement, declaring: “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.” Of course, the NCAA long ago lost all credibility of standing for all student-athletes. And the argument that student-athletes should not be able to form a union because playing sports is “voluntary” makes no sense at all, since all work is voluntary, too.
During March Madness, when colleges make vast sums of money that are lavishly handed out to coaches and administrators but not students, it’s important for student-athletes to have a voice defending their health and academic futures. If Northwestern and the NCAA don’t want a union to be that voice for student-athletes, then they need to listen to the needs of their students and persuade them that they can do a better job than a union at protecting their interests.