Positive Employee Relations Isn’t For Amateurs


The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently refused to assert jurisdiction over the unionization case involving scholarship football players at Northwestern University. Their decision, or lack thereof, effectively reversed a judgment made by the Regional Director that an election be held to determine the players’ representation in March of 2014. The ballots from the subsequent election held in April of that year will not be counted. In other words, the Northwestern football players will not be unionized, for now. More information on this decision can be found in another recent SHRM post: Northwestern Football Players’ Unionization Drive Halted.

However, this certainly won't be the last time we hear about the possibility of unionization or other labor practices in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).  In this latest ruling, the NLRB failed to acknowledge whether Northwestern scholarship football players were employees within the definition of Section 2 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This opens up the possibility for future decisions in favor of unionization.  Although the NLRB’s decision will most likely discourage scholarship athletes from unionizing, it does not entirely preclude additional union petitions in the future.

This decision may actually encourage student athletes to pursue other legal channels to enforce their rights. The current case of O’Bannon v. NCAA, for example, is pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Earlier this month, a federal judge found that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws by preventing players from profiting from the commercial use of their appearance and names.

So, what does this all mean for HR Professionals?  It’s just another example of the importance of positive employee relations, or an organization’s good faith efforts to create and sustain effective relationships between management and employees. A positive employee relations program must provide fair terms and treatment to employees while establishing an environment for them to be productive. A clear employee handbook with an actionable and anonymous ethics line is just one example of an effective policy and practice.

The NCAA and major athletic conferences, such as the Big Ten and Pac-12, have responded to the threat of unionization with new policies (or negotiations of new policies) around guaranteed scholarships, health insurance for players after graduation, and an allowable increase of monetary stipends for day-to-day living expenses.

While it is a step in the right direction, I would urge all HR professionals to think about establishing similarly positive programs to foster and promote improved relationships between management and employees ahead of lawsuits, unionization threat, or employee disengagement. Doing so may help you go from amateur to professional within Human Resources. 


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