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What Northwestern’s Football Player Union Could Mean

On April 25, 2014, 76 student athletes from Northwestern University cast their votes on whether the players should certify a union to bargain on their behalves under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). While the results of the election may not be known for some time — and are certain to have significant ramifications for Northwestern and college athletics as a whole —the mere fact that the election took place already has potential consequences for U.S. businesses of various types.

The concept of “employee” is much more complicated than it may initially appear. Not only is the term nuanced, but it can also take on different meanings depending on the context. Regardless of whether the Northwestern athletes certify, the NLRB regional director’s decision to allow the vote — and the subsequent affirmance of that decision by an NLRB administrative law judge — recognizes them as employees even though that they do not fit our traditional understanding of the word. Their status as employees not only gives them the right to bargain collectively, but could also be used to argue the following issues:

  • Workers’ compensation
  • Wage and hour laws
  • Minimum wage
  • Discrimination and harassment laws
  • Whistleblower laws

While this matter has garnered a tremendous amount of media attention, none of the decisions thus far made set any precedents. However, that could soon change, as the full National Labor Relations Board decided on April 24 to review the case. A decision by the board would potentially have precedential value and could also be appealed in the U.S. court system and ultimately heard in the Supreme Court of the United States. A precedential decision on this issue could have ramifications far beyond college athletics, and Washington, DC labor law attorneys should watch developments closely.

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