A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional official ruled Monday that basketball players at Dartmouth College are considered school employees and can go forward with attempts to hold a union election.
The landmark ruling, which Dartmouth and the NCAA can appeal to the full NLRB, could lead to the first union of athletes in college sports.
The team’s 15 players signed a petition in September to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 560, which already represents Dartmouth employees. Union representation would allow the students to collectively bargain over working conditions.
The SEIU said in September that the union is “proud to stand in solidarity with these young people as they fight for the right to collectively bargain for a better future and blaze a path for other student athletes to follow.”
Monday’s ruling continues the NLRB’s fight against the NCAA consideration of athletes as students first, and not employees of their schools. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo directly called out schools in 2021, claiming that the use of the term “student-athlete” could entitle the students to greater labor rights.
“The policies underlying the NLRA, Board law, and the common law fully support the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment,” Abruzzo wrote, referencing the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
The NCAA and colleges and universities have fought against considering students as employees. Another landmark policy change in 2021 allowed athletes to be compensated for their work via name, image and likeness (NIL) rights.
NCAA President Charlie Baker, the former governor of Massachusetts, argued in a House subcommittee hearing last month that the NIL payments do not make students employees. College sports have been an increasing focus of Congress.
The Northwestern University football team held a union election in 2014 after a similar NLRB regional ruling. That election was scrapped after the NLRB determined that if the Wildcats unionized, it would create an unfair work environment in the Big Ten conference. Northwestern is the only private university in the conference, and the NLRB can only protect private employees.
The Ivy League, of which Dartmouth is a member, is entirely made up of private institutions.
There is a similar unionization complaint pending regarding the University of Southern California’s football and men’s and women’s basketball teams.