NLRB Rejects Northwestern Football Players and the Right to Unionize

This morning, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling overturning a decision last year by a Chicago district official that had supported the right of Northwestern’s football players to unionize.

The NLRB ruled that the case “would not promote stability in labor relations.” They wrote, “Our decision is primarily premised on a finding” that the NCAA and conference exert control over individual teams, and most college football teams are public colleges not covered by the NLRB.

This is a terrible reason to reject the rights of workers. By that kind of logic, all private college faculty could be denied the right to unionize on the grounds that most college professors work in public colleges. And even though the NCAA has enormous power over athletic programs, there are plenty of issues that could be negotiated. The Northwestern players declared that they were not seeking to get paid salaries for their work, something which the NCAA bans.

The NLRB cited “the absence of any controlling precedent” as the reason for their ruling, which did not prohibit campus athletic unions in the future, but simply refused to enforce them as required at this time.

The NLRB ruled that “recent changes, as well as calls for additional reforms” indicated that “the situation of scholarship players may well change in the near future.” That may be true, although we’ve heard the NCAA promise before that they would fix every problem. But how many unions could be shut down on the grounds that the employer promised to makes some things better in the future?

The NLRB’s misguided decision follows a long line of anti-union rulings afflicting academia, most notably the Yeshiva case in 1980, where the Supreme Court ruled tenured professors could be “managers” and therefore the university was allowed to ban a union. As a result of Yeshiva, faculty unionizing at private colleges has been largely destroyed in recent decades.

What’s missing in all of these debates about NLRB regulations is the issue of a fundamental right to unionize that’s part of the First Amendment right of assembly. Just as academic freedom should be protected at private colleges even if the courts don’t enforce it, so too should be the right to unionize.

The right to unionize is a fundamental human right, and it applies to everyone on campus. Some people think unions are a bad idea for graduate student instructors, or football players, or faculty, or whoever. And perhaps sometimes they’re right to oppose a particular union in a particular circumstance. But the point of a fundamental right is that it belongs to the individual, and not to the boss, to decide. If colleges don’t want a union, they should use reason to persuade people not to create one, rather than trying to manipulate the law to ban unions, as Northwestern has done here.

Every single college should have an established policy protecting the rights of anyone at the college to unionize, just as they should protect freedom of speech and academic freedom. And even in those repressive states that ban the right to unionize at public colleges, colleges always have the power to voluntarily recognize a union, or a union-like association of employees.

Indeed, there’s no reason why the right to unionize should even be limited to employees. Students should also have the right to unionize: that’s why some student centers are still called “student unions,” because they were created out of the notion of students getting together and electing their own student governments and using dues (now called “student fees”) to pursue the common good.

That’s what Northwestern should do: they should support the rights of their students by allowing football players to form a union if they wish to. Northwestern is free to oppose a union, and to persuade their students that benign paternalism is preferable. But they shouldn’t suppress the rights of their students or employees, even when they imagine it to be for their own good.

4 thoughts on “NLRB Rejects Northwestern Football Players and the Right to Unionize

  1. While I applaud Wilson’s support of student-athletes and unions, I think the defense is wrong-headed. The only way workers and students will ever exert enough power is not through long-ago failed business unionism. Workers and students have to recognize their real power and use it: strikes and sabotage. faculty and staff worth their salt should support them in class solidarity. Northwestern football players, adjuncts, faculty, administrative staff, janitors, etc. should recognize their common interests, and STRIKE. No more football, no more classes, no more administrative support. Until and unless worker-student solidarity is practiced, relying on ruling class apparatuses like the NLRB is futile. Don’t count on the boss (in this case Northwestern University) to supply the solidarity.

  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following:

    Article 23.
    (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
    (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
    (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
    (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

  3. As Politico’s Allie Grasgreen has argued (, the board’s decision was more notable for what it didn’t do. The ruling very narrowly pertained to this case, and still leaves open a pathway for private college athletes to unionize. But it also does little to answer the question of whether college athletes are actual employees, nor does it expand case law that could ease organizing for other university students—most prominently graduate students—to organize. The AAUP’s Legal Department has prepared a thorough analysis of the decision, with specific reference to AAUP’s amicus brief in the case, that should be posted on the department’s web page ( tomorrow (August 19).

  4. Pingback: NLRB Declares Speech Restrictions on College Football Players Illegal | ACADEME BLOG

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