The Columbia Grad Student Unionization Story So Far

In the Broadway Presbyterian Church on 114th and Broadway last Wednesday, September 20, the Graduate Workers of Columbia held a graduate workers’ rights forum. The forum was organized in response to Columbia University administration's objection to the results of the December 2016 Unionization Elections. In total, 72% of the graduate workers who voted wanted a collective bargaining agreement between themselves and the University. The right to unionize at all was only made possible in a separate decision last summer. 

On August 23, 2016, in a decision between Columbia University and the Graduate workers of Columbia, The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students “who perform services at a university in connection with their studies”, were employees as according to Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act.

This decision has been flipping back and forth for the last 50 years:

  • Initially, the NLRB did not consider graduate students to be employees
  • Cornell, 1970: overruled. Graduate student workers are employees.
  • Adelphi, 1972: overruled. Are not employees.
  • NYU, 2000: overruled. Are employees
  • Brown, 2004: overruled. Are not employees.
  • Columbia, August 23, 2016: overruled. Are employees.

This is not just a meager nomenclature debate. Once the NLRB recognizes graduate students as employees, then, by extension, they are granted the right to unionize. After the NLRB came down with the overturned ruling, Columbia had to decide whether it wanted to unionize or not. This meant an election.  

In the lead up to the scheduled election, a few town halls were held to discuss the decision (Here is a recap of one such event). 

On December 7, 2016, shortly after the NLRB ruling was passed, the graduate student body at Columbia voted on whether or not they wanted to engage in collective bargaining with the University. An email from John H. Coatsworth, the Columbia Provost, on December 9, 2016, announced the decision:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
Since the last week of August, when the NLRB reversed its position and decided that students at private universities may be treated as employees, Columbia’s administration has communicated two principal messages to our University community and to eligible voters: We have always believed that the magnitude of the decision at issue in this election, in combination with Columbia’s values, required an open and respectful conversation that explained the arguments for and against unionization. Having heard those arguments, the research and teaching assistants who voted have chosen to be represented by the United Auto Workers.
Second, as I said in my letter of August 24 to the Columbia community: “Regardless of the outcome of the election, we will continue to ensure that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment.” While this sentiment of course remains as true today as it was then, I want to reemphasize it.
Thank you very much to all of you that participated in the conversation and special thanks to those who voted.

— John H. Coatsworth

For those who supported the Unionization vote, this was a momentous and thrilling occasion. However, the honeymoon did not last long.

On January 9, 2017, while students were away on winter break, another email from the Provost said that Columbia had “formally asked the National Labor Relations Board to examine whether certain actions by union representatives and Board agents responsible for supervising the election improperly affected the election outcome.”

The Employer/Columbia (officially: “The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York”), represented by the law firm Proskauer Rose, listed out seven objections(summarized below) in a “Statement of Objections to Conduct of the Election and Conduct Affecting Results of the Election”. The full document is available here :

  1. Those who voted at Earl hall (pictured above) were forced to pass known Union agents within 100 feet of the polling place. This “could have affected the outcome of the election and would, therefore, warrant setting aside the election”
  2. “Union supporters were engaged in surveillance and created an impression of surveillance during the election” via setting up a camera and photographing.
  3. The day before the election, the Regional Office reversed a prior decision to require voters to show identification at the polls. Not having voters “show identification at the polls created confusion during the election,” Columbia claims.
  4. A Board Agent (i.e, a National Labor Relations Board agent) dismissed a non-supervisory employee in front of unit employees, which could have prejudiced voters.
  5. Between 3-3:30 on election day, a Board Agent closed the doors to the CUMC polling place.
  6. Also at the CUMC site, a Board Agent turned away prospective voters because they had run out of challenged ballot envelopes.
  7. That the first six objections “identify conduct which could have affected the results of the election”. However, because this last objection did not have any evidence, it was overruled by the NLRB.

Since the objection came down, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) in collaboration with the United Automobile Workers (UAW) have been active in promoting their cause. Shortly after the email was sent, the GWC-UAW started a petition, which was signed by “over 2,000 RAs and TAs...along with over 30,000 members from our community” (overview here), asking to drop these objections. Over the next 9 months, other signs of protest and awareness, including graduating undergraduates brought a sign saying “Graduate Workers of Columbia” while they shook the president’s hand (facebook video here).

Besides these, this author was unable to uncover formal, legal action in response.

The rally on Wednesday was a continuation of the trend to build support for the movement by demonstrating support from representatives, including Congressman Jerry Nadler, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, Congresswoman Grace Meng and New York City councilmember Mark Levine. Each offered words of support:

We call on Columbia to do the right thing and be on the right side of democracy.
— Jerry Nadler
TAs are absolutely, definitively workers. And their work should be respected.
— Deborah Glick
[Columbia] believe[s] that they will be able to wear you down. That is tactic used by corporations, not institutions of higher education...It is time for them to come to the table and negotiate.
— Deborah Glick
Teaching is work. It is a job. They need adequate benefits, fair play...there is such a clear case for why.
— Mark Levine

Following this, several other graduate students expressed some of the reason for why a union is necessary. One Computer Science PhD student, Noura Farra, told her story about how she lost her sponsor about a year into the program and was forced to search for another for one year before finding someone. Justin Steinfeld, a PhD student conducting cancer research, noted that the poor quality of the water and air in the William Black Building has forced them to change some procedures in their experiments, namely buying filtered water and regular replacing of air filters. Olga Brudastova, a PhD student in Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, discussed examples of late pay and undue processes of dismissal. She presented the case of Longxi, who was fired for wanting to return to China for a holiday. The professor (the name was not mentioned) expressed distrust with China and Olga claimed the professor to have said, “Don’t forget the hand that feeds you.”

Besides Columbia, there are some universities which have already begun negotiations or have a signed bargaining agreement, including University of Connecticut, and The New School. Other universities which have not engaged in negotiations include Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago.

The story continues on November 3, when the GWC-UAW hold a rally.

Regardless, the debate on unionization and further financial aid continues (see article).