With the ongoing graduate student strikes at Columbia University, the issue of unionization on campuses has again come into the national higher education spotlight.
Hundreds of students, many of whom are part of Columbia’s Graduate Student Employees United, started striking on Monday, rallying for the creation of a teaching and research assistant union and the release of vote tallies.
The GSEU is protesting Columbia’s decision almost two years ago to appeal the National Labor Relations Board’s verdict in declaring that graduate students had a right to unionize. Because of the administration’s decision, votes cast by students at the time are impounded.
Cornell is not a stranger to unionization efforts. In contrast with Columbia’s decision to appeal the NLRB’s decision, Cornell, in a similar case, was the first university to grant graduate students the right to vote on this issue.
To the surprise of many, the initiative was shot down in October 2002 with a 70 percent majority against unionization. On the other hand, the union movement did influence Cornell’s decision in February 2003 to raise graduate student wages.
Although the Columbia protests have received attention on campuses nationwide and were covered by the New York Times, they will have little effect on East Hill according to Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
Ehrenberg said that Columbia’s situation is strange, since many of the students who voted two years ago had already graduated. He suspects that because of Columbia’s reputation and current position, the administration will not cave into GSEU’s demands.
“[The administration] has already announced that students will get their grades regardless,” Ehrenberg said. “When you are talking about one of the top research universities, the Columbia Ph.D. students probably do fairly well.”
This year, Columbia granted a $17,000 stipend to 90 percent of Ph.D. humanities students. Although many Columbia graduate students consider this amount low, Ehrenberg said that in studies he has done, public universities tend to give assistants the highest work loads, often having them teach classes. Ehrenberg said in one department study, assistants were paid $9,000 to $10,000 a year and added that Cornell assistants receive more than that.
Back at Morningside Heights, the number of striking graduate students has decreased from hundreds to between 60 to 80 according to Columbia Spectator reports. While there is some speculation into the effect that the protests have on the university, GSEU members are still optimistic that the strikes are taking a toll on the administration, according to David Carpio, an organizer for the GSEU.
“The strikes are going better than we thought,” Carpio said. “It is very encouraging.”
Carpio said that he heard reports claiming that the university has been hiring adjunct staff members to compensate for the striking assistants. In addition, he added that faculty members have been providing positive feedback for the GSEU and undergraduate students have been boycotting classes.
In addressing concerns over the number of protesters, Carpio said it is unrealistic that hundreds could picket everyday since it is tiring. Rather, the GSEU has asked protesters to take shifts — a fact which makes the total effect of the strikes misleading.
“We’re really not measuring the impact of the strike by the bodies on the picket line,” Carpio said.
Responding to the strikes, Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley released a list of general guidelines to help “navigate these unusual circumstances” on Monday. The administration had also assured students that they will get their grades and seniors will graduate.
In addition, Columbia has positive working relations with nine unions and 13 bargaining units, according to Susan Brown, assistant vice president for public affairs. Brown said that the administration is waiting for the NLRB’s decision on Columbia’s appeal and that their main focus is to try and reduce the effects of the strike — something she claims the university has done quite well thus far.
“All indications are that the disruption to classes and academic studies has been minimal,” Brown said.
Some Columbia graduate students, however, are opposed to a union formation, including Neil Sarkar, a Columbia graduate student in their biomedical informatics program. Sarkar said that the administration has worked hard to address graduate students issues and added that there is a sentiment among many of his peers that a union might not be the best option to follow.
Even though unionization supporters at other universities do not know what will happen concerning the strikes, they are cautiously optimistic about the effects they might have on efforts around the country.
Among these individuals include Robb Willer grad, a spokesperson for the Cornell Association for Student Employees/United Auto Workers. Willer hopes that the protests will send a message to administrations around the country that graduate student workers should be able to exercise their rights.
“We’ve heard pretty positive things,” said graduate student David Faris, chair of the Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania. “Even if the Columbia administration doesn’t drop the appeal, it demonstrates that we can take the graduate students out and it could really disrupt the university.”
Late last February, Faris and other members of GET-UP staged a two-day strike with the same motive in encouraging Penn’s administration to drop its NLRB appeal — a move which brought some attention to the issue, but did not result in any university action. Faris said that his group is considering going out on strike in the fall.
Ehrenberg pointed to a variety of advantages of having a student union. Among these benefits include the ability to negotiate a contract with the university, as well as a higher backing when a union member has a complaint against its employers.
Carpio acknowledges these benefits, and said that the GSEU’s efforts have been supported by individuals from Penn, Yale and Rutgers, among others. Although Carpio said that he is not specifically looking to influence the climate at other institutions, he is optimistic that the strikes will have a strong impact on Columbia, especially with exams coming up in a few weeks.
“We’re not doing this to send a signal across the country,” Carpio said. “We’re really doing this to send a signal to our administration.”
Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Editor