“We Won,” proclaimed the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 (GWC) on its webpage after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that Columbia’s teaching and research assistants had voted 1602 to 623 to join the union.
The vote came after a nearly three-year organizing campaign in which members of GWC built an effective organization that fought to give Columbia graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants a voice on the job.
Members of the union said that the union election victory will make Columbia a better place to learn and work.
Addison Godel, a teaching assistant and GCW member, called the election “a victory for the entire Columbia community.”
“We care deeply about the world-renowned teaching and research that happens at our university and are ready to tackle the issues that matter most to us, our students and our neighbors,” said Godel.
Olga Brudastrova, a research assistant and a GWC member, said that having a union will give teaching and research assistants a voice in making “improvements that will make sure Columbia stays a competitive institution in the 21st century.”
“We bring in nearly $1 billion each year in grants and contracts and teach courses from chemical engineering and applied physics to biology and religion, but for too long, Ivory Tower administrators have been calling all the shots,” added Brudastrova.
The union organizing campaign began in January 2014 when Columbia graduate workers learned that the administration at nearby New York University had recognized a union formed by fellow graduate workers.
As union supporters at Columbia talked and listened to other research and teaching assistants, a common set of grievances began to emerge.
Graduate workers were concerned about inadequate pay, an unreliable health insurance plan, sexual harassment, job insecurity, and the lack of fairness on the job.
In May 2014, the fledgling union held a town hall meeting to give graduate workers a chance to express themselves. The auditorium where the meeting took place was packed with graduate workers from 30 different departments.
By the end of June, GWC had active members in nearly every department on campus.
While GWC was building its organization, it was also acting like a union, even though it hadn’t been recognized by the administration.
It worked with the Graduate Student Advisory Council and other student groups to win a pay raise for graduate workers.
It fought for a fair grievance system that would protect graduate workers from capricious and unfair disciplinary actions.
It provided information and resources to international students who had immigration and visa questions and tax problems.
It gathered 2000 signatures on a national petition to restore billions of dollars in research funding cuts from the federal budget.
And it pressed its case for union recognition to Columbia’s administration.
While it was organizing, there was a question about whether graduate workers were employees who had a right to join a union and bargain collectively.
That issued was settled in the union’s favor by a National Labor Relations Board decision issued last summer.
After gathering enough signatures on union representation cards, GWC filed a petition for a union election.
The university’s administration conducted a anti-union campaign, which the union met head on with facts that rebutted the administration’s claims that graduate workers didn’t need a union.
With its election victory, GWC became the first union to win such an election at a private university. There could be more to follow.
Harvard graduate workers are waiting for the NLRB to announce the results of its union representation election held in November. The board is in the processing of resolving challenges to some of the ballots.
Graduate workers at Duke University have filed for a union representation election and are waiting for an election date to be announced.
Yale graduate workers are also in the process of organizing as are graduate workers at Northwestern, Loyola University of Chicago, St Louis University, and American University.
The UAW has 38,500 graduate workers at 48 public universities throughout the US, and the American Federation of Teachers has 33,000 graduate worker members at 33 public institutions of higher education.
GWC members are urging Columbia to recognize the results of the democratic vote and to begin negotiations with the union as soon as possible.
So far, Columbia’s administration has not indicated whether it will begin or seek to delay negotiations.