Dartmouth Men’s Basketball Team Votes To Form First Union In College Sports

The school is likely to challenge the players' status as employees, and a lengthy legal battle is likely to follow.

Members of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team voted to form the very first union in a college sports program on Tuesday, delivering a boost to organized labor and another potential blow to the collegiate amateurism model.

The union election held at the Ivy League school in Hanover, New Hampshire, could prove to be historic, but the legal battle over whether the players can bargain collectively is far from over.

Dartmouth’s trustees have disputed the athletes’ legal status as employees eligible to unionize. It could be years before the case is resolved at the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees private-sector union elections, and possibly federal court afterwards.

“These players are our members and we welcome them warmly.”

- Chris Peck, president of SEIU Local 560

But for now, the players have made clear they intend to bargain over their working conditions as part of the Service Employees International Union Local 560, the same group that represents cooks, custodians, groundskeepers and other workers on campus.

The vote tally was 13-2 in the union’s favor.

“These players are our members and we welcome them warmly,” the union’s president, Chris Peck, said in a statement. “We’re all looking forward to standing in solidarity as they begin to negotiate their historic first contract.”

Dartmouth said in a statement that it was “proud to build productive relationships” with its unions, but that it doesn’t believe the basketball players are workers.

“In this isolated circumstance ... the students on the men’s basketball team are not in any way employed by Dartmouth,” the school said. “For Ivy League students who are varsity athletes, academics are of primary importance, and athletic pursuit is part of the educational experience.”

The National Collegiate Athletics Association, the governing body for college sports, has always insisted that college athletes are not employees, despite being the center of a billion-dollar industry. Union campaigns have percolated within the NCAA for years, but until Tuesday none had made it so far as to see the ballots opened following a vote.

Football players at Northwestern University in Illinois held an election in 2014, but the labor board impounded the ballots pending the school’s appeal. Members of the board ultimately declined jurisdiction in the case, killing the union effort by punting on the politically explosive question of whether the athletes were really employees.

Changes in NLRB election rules since then allowed for the Dartmouth ballots to be opened on Tuesday immediately following the vote. The school filed a Hail Mary-motion last week trying to either block the election from happening or have the ballots locked up while its legal challenge played out. The labor board did not oblige.

But immediately after Tuesday’s vote, the school appealed the decision that allowed for the vote to take place. That puts the issue before the NLRB’s board members in Washington.

Due to appointments by President Joe Biden, the labor board now has a Democratic majority that tends to hold a broader, more union-friendly view of collective bargaining rights, with a track record that bodes well for the players and the SEIU.

The board also had a Democratic majority when it decided to extinguish the Northwestern union effort, but the political and legal landscape around college sports has changed significantly over the past decade. College players can now profit off their name, image and likeness, while recent polling shows a majority of Americans believe college athletes should be paid directly by their schools.

“The labor board now has a Democratic majority that tends to hold a broader, more union-friendly view of collective bargaining rights.”

Meanwhile, a separate NLRB case revolves around whether football and basketball players at the University of Southern California qualify as employees for the purpose of labor law. The labor board’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, argues that the university, the PAC-12 conference and the NCAA have misclassified the players as “student athletes” rather than the employees they are.

Abruzzo told HuffPost in a 2021 interview that she believes college athletes are workers under the law.

“If players at academic institutions feel like they want to choose a union to represent them in discussions with their employer over wages or working conditions ... then they should be filing [union representation] petitions,” she said.

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