This coming Friday, lawyers for Northwestern University football players are set to begin making their case to federal officials that the players have the right to form a labor union. The hearing in Chicago will mark the beginning of a legal battle that could drag on for years. Depending on the outcome, the case could transform big-time college sports and impact labor relations throughout academia.
For union backers, the timing of the move is quite favorable. The road to unionization would be a long one — it is for most workers in the U.S., since the system is generally tilted to the benefit of the employer — but there’s reason to believe that the players may have a sympathetic audience in the officials who decide their case.
Assuming Northwestern disputes the players’ right to unionize — and that’s practically a guarantee — the legal arguments will hinge on whether or not the players are actually employees of the school and therefore have rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The case will begin at a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, in Chicago, where the regional director will determine whether or not the players, who are backed by the United Steelworkers union, have the right to hold an election.
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