NRLB Discussion with Provost Coatsworth

October 18, 2016

Last week there was a well-publicized (if not well-attended) meeting about the National Labor Relations Board’s Conversation with Provost Coatsworth and unionization of students who work on campus.

By way of summarizing the focus of the event, the following screenshot is taken from an email from the Office of Student Affairs Newsletter from October 4, 2016:

The professors and faculty on the panel included:

  • John H Coatsworth
  • Merit E Janow
  • Jan Svejnar
  • Bentley MacLeod
  • Sharyn O’Halloran
  • Richard Robb

To give a summary of what was discussed, I would say that the faculty were against the position, and, of the students who asked questions, most were in favor of it. Some of the key points the faculty raised were that students being considered employees is strange in the sense that the “employment” model is they were brought into the organization (i.e. SIPA) not because of their teaching abilities (citing that the application process does not ask for teaching experience), but because they would be good scholars. When brought in and trained for 4 years (in the example of PhD students), they are helped to find another job (i.e. in the job market) – which is basically the opposite of how traditional employee-employer relationships work. The organization, SIPA, is first and foremost intended to impart specific knowledge and skills to the students.

Another point raised was that unintended negative consequences may result if the teacher – student/graduate employee relationship were altered. There is a concern that the overhanging presence of a union, and the uncertainty of how the union may react if any of their members complains of being short-changed by teachers/employers, could affect how the professor/employer interacts with the student/employee. There was also a concern that professors would hire based on experience rather than interest.

A third point the faculty made was that it was questionable as to how much additional money (as pay) students may be able to earn after unionization, since additional money simply is not available. The school is already raising money from alumni, and providing this money as it becomes available. The union could ask for more money, but SIPA simply does not have the resources.

In response, the students contested the point of the mentor-mentee relationship, saying that the person a student works for (as TA, RA or DRA) is, in effect, the student’s boss and there are strict expectations which the student is expected to meet. This often includes a significant amount of overtime in order to get a job done, which is not reflected in the pay. Additionally, in contrast with some research roles, many jobs undertaken by students are administrative, doing little to develop the students’ skills and, therefore, parrying the point about these jobs being another aspect to the student’s education.

Secondly, several students raised the issues of implementation of Columbia’s policies for stipends, particularly those related to maternity leave. One student said that it took SIPA two years before they recognized her leave. She argued that an union would provide a legal backing with which a student could push for these and other favourable and just policies to be enacted.

Finally, a student pointed out that the desire to have a union is not because she is upset, but because it known that bad things can happen and the union would provide some leverage to fix it. The fact that sometimes bad things happen was a point both the faculty and students definitely agreed upon.

Personally, the main point that resonated with me was that I really do not know what ramifications a union would have on the general student body, the faculty, or the graduate employees. Therefore, I know that I need to do some research and talk to a few people at NYU (where they do have a signed unionization agreement) and try and answer some of these questions in upcoming posts.