In a move that has drawn the attention of activists nationwide, teaching assistants and research assistants at Columbia University filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on March 28 requesting an official election to establish a union.
If Columbia graduate students are successful in obtaining and winning an election, Columbia could become the first Ivy League university and only the second private university in the country — along with New York University (NYU) — to have a graduate teaching assistant union.
“We believe that the best way to communicate our interests to the university is through collective bargaining,” said Beverly Gage, Columbia history teaching assistant, according to United Auto Workers (UAW) news.
“Grad employees at public universities have made major improvements through unionization; now it’s time for the Ivy League to catch up,” she added.
The NLRB will now hold hearings to review the petition and set a date for the election.
Columbia’s initiative comes in the wake of NYU’s recent strides towards unionization. The first at a private university to win the right to organize, NYU grads were successful in bargaining with their university earlier this month.
In reviewing the NYU case, the NLRB reinforced the ground-breaking decision made last November, that graduate teaching assistants are official employees under federal labor law and are eligible to seek collective-bargaining rights.
This precedent will partially pave the way for Columbia graduate students to organize, Gage predicted.
“NYU was a great precedent and a great model for us,” Gage told UAW news.
Like the NYU students, Columbia’s organizers are working with the UAW, which represents over 15,000 graduate employees at universities nation-wide.
“Prestige is not enough. Academic student employees are workers, and workers do better when they are represented by unions. That’s why we wholeheartedly support this campaign,” said Phil Wheeler, regional director of UAW in Manhattan, according to UAW news.
Gillian Lindt, interim dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences earlier last week sent an e-mail message to students, expressing “profound disquiet and doubts about the wisdom of such unionization.”
In an interview, she pointed to issues such as the loss of flexibility in professor–student relationships that come with unionization and what she described as Columbia’s relatively generous support for graduate teaching assistants.
Lindt added that she was worried about the “ineffectual homogenization” that may result from unions where the diverse interests of students are not fully represented.
“My main concern is the way that the traditional industrial model is being applied to the graduate education model, as determined by the NLRB,” Lindt said. “I tend to view graduate school as a temporary training period, unlike the situation for a more long-term supervisor/employee relationship.”
Walter Cohen, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School said that Columbia’s recent move was difficult to evaluate.
“I would not say that it is going to be a national trend — a New York trend maybe,” Cohen said, suggesting that the higher living costs in New York City may place students at Columbia and NYU in a unique position to complain.
Comparing Columbia’s stipends with Cornell’s, Cohen noted that Cornell students are relatively well off.
Whereas the majority of Columbia’s 1,100 teaching and research assistants receive about $13,000 a year ($15,000 next year) for their work, Cornell’s stipend values for its 2,700 doctoral candidates average around $16,000 and higher.
President Hunter R. Rawlings III said that he was not expecting the Columbia initiative to spur Cornell grad students to unionize.
“We have consistently tried to work with graduate students to make sure that they are well-represented,” he said.
To further this dialogue, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) currently has meetings with the administration twice a month, noted Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations.
He cited the recent improvements in graduate student health care plans as one benefit that has resulted from such communications.
Under the new plan, next year all fully funded graduate students at Cornell will receive health insurance, a total cash value of approximately $3 million.
Despite this improvement, Patrick Carr, president of the GPSA admitted that there had been some “quiet rumblings” from students supporting unions and that the subject was broached in recent meetings with the administration. However, “nobody’s started anything,” and there is no sign that any action will happen in the near future, he said.
“I can guarantee you that the GPSA isn’t going to lead a unionization effort, because we represent a broader range of students than any union would cover.”
He added that the “xenophobic lobbying practices” of organizations such as the UAW would likely further discourage Cornell’s graduate body, which is composed of 40 percent international students.
John Sebastian, humanities representative to the GPSA, attended the Annual Ivy League Graduate and Professional School Conference last week and observed Cornell’s peer representatives are all “cognizant” of Columbia’s initiative.
“Everyone is watching Columbia, and whether anyone else follows suit largely depends upon the response there,” Sebastian said. He added that no one was rushing into anything.
Sebastian noted that the Columbia representatives to the conference expressed concerns about the union initiatives spreading like wildfire before a proper direction was established.
“They were worried that the main information people were receiving was through sound bites,” he said. “Because it’s a hot bottom issue, word quickly spread before the goals of the initiative could be properly defined.”
To monitor Columbia’s progress, the representatives left with the agreement to reconvene the conference half a year early. The group further discussed inviting representatives from public universities, such as Berkeley, where long-standing unionization policies have become strongly integrated into the school’s culture.
Sebastian said that the meeting illustrated that Cornell graduates have one of the better relationships with the administration within the Ivy League. He added that he would be surprised if any union movements surfaced in the near future.
“Graduate students here seem content,” Sebastian said.
“The only reason I believe unionization has surfaced here is because it is now an issue at other schools, and because we have a labor relations school. I don’t expect change, because there’s no call for it,” he added.
While students and administrators may feel fairly confident at Cornell, the course of action at Columbia is less clear.
“We’re venturing into uncharted territory, and we don’t yet know the outcome. NYU just undertook their initiatives last month and as of yet, they have no contract in place. About all we can do is wait and see what happens,” Lindt said.
Archived article by Jennifer Roberts