The US National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that graduate students working as academic assistants at Columbia University are workers who have the right to join a union and bargain collectively.
A day after the ruling, a delegation of Columbia graduate students from the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 (GWC-UAW) delivered a letter to Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger urging him to allow a union representation election without interference and should graduate students vote to join a union to “immediately commence goodfaith negotiations for a contract” should graduate students decide to join the union.”
“The NLRB clearly recognizes the increasingly indispensable role we play in carrying out Columbia’s world-class research and teaching missions—we teach hundreds of classes and help bring in roughly $1 billion in research grants each year,” reads a message to members on the union’s website. “Up to this point, Columbia has fruitlessly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an expensive outside law firm to oppose our right to a union. They say a union is ‘not necessary,’ yet Columbia still fails to fully address the constant insecurity and unpredictability of our working conditions. We hope they will do better moving forward, and more than 160 elected and community leaders told Columbia last year that they agree with us.”
Graduate students at Columbia began organizing their union in 2014 after New York University recognized the The Graduate Student Organizing Committee-UAW Local 2110, the union of graduate students at NYU.
What started as conversations among concerned Columbia graduate students quickly transformed into a campuswide movement.
In May 2014, GWC-UAW held its first town-hall type meeting. The meeting hall was packed with graduate students from more than 30 departments.
By June GWC-UAW had union activists in nearly every department at Columbia.
With an organization in place, the union began asking graduate students to sign cards signifying their interest in joining a union.
By the end of the semester, union activists had gathered 1700 union cards.
In December with the union cards in hand, a delegation from the union asked Columbia’s administration to recognize the union, but the administration ignored the request.
A week later, GWC-UAW filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, but an NLRB regional office denied the request.
It said that a previous NLRB decision called Brown University prevented the regional office from recognizing graduate students as workers.
The union appealed the regional office’s decision, and on August 23, the NLRB by a 3-1 vote overturned Brown and recognized graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants as employees.
In announcing its decision, the NLRB said that the Brown decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protection of the (National Labor Relations) Act without convincing justification.”
More than a year and one-half elapsed between the time that GWC-UAW filed its petition and the final decision by the NLRB. During that period, GWC-UAW continued to organize, agitate and find ways to serve graduate students.
In the spring of 2016, international graduate students who are members of GWC-UAW organized a series of workshops to provide information on taxes and visas to other international student workers.
GWC-UAW members in the spring joined other low-wage workers in demonstrations for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and worked with the Graduate Student Advisory Council to improve pay and benefits for graduate students.
As a result, Columbia in May announced new benefits for graduate workers, including paid parental leave, a child care subsidy, and expanded fee waivers.
In July, Columbia announced that it would raise pay for graduate student workers.
The union applauded these gains but pointed out that they were the result of solidarity and collective action rather than the administration’s generosity and that much more needed to be done.
“With collective bargaining, we would have more power to build on improvements we have already won by joining together across campus over the last few years. We could not only bargain as equals for additional improvements, but could also secure those provisions in a contract that Columbia could not change without our agreement—as they do frequently with our health and dental benefits,” said the union in a message to members.