May 3, 2005

Grad Students Strike For Unions at Columbia, Yale

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During the week of April 18-22, graduate students at Yale and Columbia Universities united to create the first multi-campus strike in the history of the Ivy League.

The graduate students were seeking recognition of union status, a title they have been denied since the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2004 that graduate students at private universities are students, not workers, and any unions which they may form are not protected by federal law.

According to the Graduate Employee and Student Organization at Yale, “graduate teachers and researchers do much of the work that allows their universities to function effectively, yet they receive insufficient wages or benefits.”

By organizing as a union, graduate students hoped to be able to negotiate as a solid entity with their universities’ administrations.

During the weeklong strike, graduate student teachers did not grade papers or teach classes. On both campuses, graduate student teachers and their supporters rallied to call for better health care benefits, higher wages and an impartial system to resolve grievances between the students and administrations.

David Wolach, a strike organizer and past Columbia graduate student, was optimistic about the effect of the protest on the administration.

“It was a great strike in that a majority of our membership participated. We know that we had a major impact on the operation and reputation of the university,” he said.

Hundreds of students and teachers gathered both in New York City and in New Haven to picket and hear speeches by students, notable politicians and labor leaders.

At Columbia, one of the highlights of the strike came on Wednesday afternoon, when a crowd numbering 2,000 marched down Broadway to meet with Reverend Jesse Jackson at New York University. Students from Yale, as well as other universities in the tri-state area, also ventured into New York City to join Wednesday’s rally.

In 2000, graduate students at NYU became the first group of graduate students at a private university to win collective bargaining and negotiation rights. The benefits of this victory echoed uptown on the Columbia campus and inspired students there, at Yale and at other private institutions to push for union recognition.

Ever since the NLRB, appointed by President Bush in 2004, made the decision not to federally recognize student teacher unions, the NYU union is in danger of losing its contract and now must carry on the fight for continued recognition.

Currently, graduate student teachers at public universities are permitted to form unions. Wolach feels that since graduate student teachers in the public and private sectors have similar work responsibilities, it is only fair for those in the private sector to be allowed to unionize as well.

Felicity Palmer, a Ph.D. student in Columbia’s English department and the preceptor of an African Civilizations seminar, said that Columbia’s administration felt pressure as a result of the strike.

“[Columbia] Provost Alan Brinkley acknowledged the impact we had on the university in an article in our daily newspaper,” she said. “The next step is that Columbia will recognize us as a union and start bargaining with us. It has been far too long, and they finally got a firsthand taste of our level of support.”

At both Columbia and Yale, undergraduates and faculty members showed support for the graduate students’ cause. Palmer noted a buzz of excitement throughout the Columbia campus during the week. Some undergraduates and faculty even joined the picket lines alongside the graduates.

Rachel Sulkes, a former graduate student at Yale and currently an organizer for the Employee and Student Organization, thought that the strikers were successful in achieving their goals.

“[In addition to better wages and benefits,] we also wanted to bring together a national movement of universities across country,” she said.

Sulkes added that the strikers received letters of support from other universities around the country and internationally.

“This event marked the beginning of a real national movement. We are going to see change within the universities around these issues, and it is exciting to see it all happening,” Sulkes said.

Archived article by Julie Zeveloff
Sun Staff Writer