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Stiff Arm: College Football Players at Michigan Public Universities Barred from Unionizing

On December 30, 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R), signed Public Law 414 into law, which excludes college athletes from the definition of “public employees” who are entitled to collectively bargain in Michigan.

The Bill’s passage came after the Michigan House of Representatives passed House Bill 6074 during a lame-duck session that ended on December 19, 2014.

Public Law 414 amends an existing Michigan law concerning public employees and their rights to collectively bargain. The law now specifically bans from the definition of a public employee “[a]n individual serving as a graduate student research assistant or in an equivalent position, and a student participating in intercollegiate athletics on behalf of a public university in [Michigan].”

Those who support the bill say that it will preempt the type of activity stemming out of Northwestern University. The Northwestern case, which is pending before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), will decide whether college athletes are “employees” for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The decision will cover only private universities and only Division 1 football players.

Regardless of how the Northwestern case comes out, it should have limited effect on the majority of major college sports programs at public universities. States like Michigan can set the definition of an employee entitled to collectively bargain by state law, which will govern players at public universities. Nonetheless, supporters of the Michigan law said the ban simply reinforces the idea that student-athletes are students first and should be focused on the classroom rather than their athletic pursuits.

Many commentators have criticized the new law as a solution without a problem, as there has yet to be any public talk from athletes at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, or the state’s other public colleges and universities about unionizing athletes. Thus far, players from Northwestern are the only student-athletes who have voiced strong support for unionizing. That could change quickly, however, once the NLRB issues its decision in that case.


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