Northwestern University football players to vote on union amid debate over labor rights

Northwestern University football players are scheduled to vote Friday whether to join a union, part of a labor battle that is drawing intense scrutiny from colleges with major athletic programs, national union leaders and higher education lobbyists in Washington.

At issue is whether players on scholarship at the private research university in Evanston, Ill., are effectively employees with the right to seek collective bargaining. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Ohr, determined March 26 that the football players should be considered employees under federal law. Northwestern disagreed and appealed the decision to the five-member board in Washington.

The board announced Thursday that it had accepted the university’s request for a review. There is no timetable for the board to rule.

The outcome of the secret-ballot vote among Northwestern’s football players will not be known for some time as the board considers a case with broad ramifications not only for intercollegiate athletics but also for how colleges operate.

“This is not the same thing as organizing a steel mill. This is a university,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities. “We think that students are students. They are not employees.”

To call students employees, Hartle said, would raise “vast and unknowable” issues. If scholarship football players are employees, what about students in other sports with partial scholarships? What about students with scholarships in music or dance programs, or those with general academic scholarships?

Hartle said his organization would weigh in on the side of Northwestern as the board deliberates.

National labor leaders are standing with those who want to join a union called the College Athletes Players Association.

“Like workers everywhere, they want a voice on the job — and don’t let anyone tell you these football players are not working for the university and padding its bottom line through their jobs on the football field,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, wrote on the organization’s Web site this week. “They want and deserve a say in how they spend as many as 60 hours a week under the tight control of coaches and the university, in honing their football skills while finding enough hours outside of football to keep up with their demanding academic responsibilities.”

Several colleges and universities are closely tracking the issue. Higher education experts say the case has a direct impact on private institutions because the labor board’s jurisdiction is focused on the private sector. But public universities could have a stake in the outcome because big-time sports, especially football and basketball, operate in national markets.

Stanford University, a private institution in California, said it disagrees with regional director Ohr’s decision in the Northwestern case.

“We strongly believe that student-athletes at Stanford are students first and foremost,” Brad Hayward, a Stanford spokesman, said. “They must meet the same high standards for admission and academic performance as all other students. We work very hard to ensure that the academic and athletic experiences of our student-athletes are excellent and properly supported, and that their Stanford education will provide them with outstanding preparation for success in the broader world.”

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the public university in Blacksburg is “watching with interest.” But he said the issue might be moot in Virginia because the state’s public employees do not have collective bargaining rights.

The Northwestern case, Hincker said, “begs more questions than it answers.” Among them: Would the government consider a football scholarship to be income? “If you’re employees,” Hincker asked, “is that taxable?”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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