Graduate student teaching assistants at Columbia University walked off their jobs this week, a follow-up to a four-week strike they held last spring that nearly derailed graduation ceremonies. The demands of Graduate Student Employees United, affiliated with the United Auto Workers, haven't changed much over the four years they have been trying to persuade the university to negotiate over wages and benefits. Like similar efforts at New York University, Brown, the University of Massachusetts, and Yale, the aborning unionization movement won a major boost in 2000 when the National Labor Relations Boardafter months of studying the issuevoted unanimously that student teachers were workers and thus entitled to collectively bargain over their working conditions.
photo: Cary Conover
Springing into action: Columbia grad students demonstrate for the right to belong to a union.
But after the Bush administration achieved its majority on the NLRB in late 2003, that victory was quickly undone. In a 3-2 vote split along party lines, the panel overturned its previous ruling. The odd-couple alliance between the academic bastion on the Upper Left Side and Bush's Texas Rangers still leaves Columbia representatives tongue-tied when asked about it.
"The NLRB is an officially recognized entity. The university is in line with the NLRB," said Alissa Kaplan Michaels, a spokesperson for Columbia, last week. Pressed as to whether the university feels a little funny being protected from its own students by the GOP, Michaels said: "I don't think we look at it that way."