The 59-person Board of Governors for the State Employees Association of North Carolina has voted to allow college athletes at public universities to join the union’s ranks, officially recognizing them as state employees rather than student-athletes, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The SEANC will allow individual athletes at North Carolina’s 17 public universities to pay the $9 per month membership fee to join the union without the added complication of having the entire team vote in favor of unionizing. As members of SEANC, players will be able to seek help for any workplace grievances that may arise, but it’s still unclear what — if anything — they would be empowered to do about it.
“What the group has definitively decided is to change our own membership rules to allow them to join,” SEANC spokeswoman Toni Davis told the Associated Press. “And everything beyond that is really in a planning and development stage.”
The decision to allow college athletes to join means that the union now recognizes them as state employees of their respective universities, a definition that the NCAA and college administrations have fought desperately to avoid as part of a larger union movement at Northwestern University in Illinois. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board’s Chicago chapter ruled in March that football players at Northwestern had the right to vote to form a union. The NLRB announced in April that it would review the decision, and the results of the players’ union vote won’t be announced until after the Board makes a final decision.
If the Northwestern players win the right to unionize and vote to form a union, it would create the first union for college athletes that could advocate for things like improved health coverage, more rigorous educational standards and fair compensation. The university and the National Collegiate Athletics Association have both fiercely opposed the union vote.
Unlike the Northwestern case, which affects only private colleges and universities, SEANC’s ruling applies only to North Carolina’s public schools, which includes Division I programs at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University.
North Carolina, however, is a right-to-work state that prohibits public sector unions from collectively bargaining with their employers, so even if individual athletes decide to join, SEANC’s decision to include them is primarily a symbolic statement of support for college athletes.
“This is largely a symbolic gesture by the union, and any college athletes who would join would also just be engaging in symbolism,” Villanova University sports sociologist Rick Eckstein told NPR. “Not that symbolism isn’t important, since it could at least reflect a desire by college athletes to think and act as employees.”