Columbia Graduate Student Workers Fight Administration for the Right to Unionize

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One year ago on Friday, Paul Katz and hundreds of other graduate students who teach and conduct research at Columbia University approached administrators to formally announce majority support for forming a union. Katz says he had hoped a big liberal university would at least recognize the graduate student workers’ democratic majority choice.

What he didn’t count on was that Columbia would hire a big anti-union law firm — Proskauer Rose LLP, the same batch of lawyers who have battled workers trying to unionize at Volkswagen, as well as players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball.

The graduate student workers, known as the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC), are represented by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), which represents about 50,000 workers in higher education, including those at NYU, the University of California, and MIT.

This Friday, the GWC-UAW will hold a rally on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library to bring awareness to the growing support for their cause and commemorate the one-year anniversary of their announcement of majority support for forming a union. Their message to Columbia: “Stop wasting resources fighting that right.”

Already, some 160 elected officials and community leaders — including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — have signed a letter asking Columbia to allow an election. The organizing effort is now being reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Columbia is very, very wealthy,” says Katz. “There is no doubt that Columbia has the money to do this. They’re spending money on the best anti-union firm in New York City. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

About 3,000 graduate students at Columbia serve as research and teaching assistants. As at most major research universities, administrators rely heavily on these graduate students workers. “We’re not naive,” Katz says. “We don’t think having a union is going to quadruple our stipend, but I think we should have a say.”

One of the biggest problems is a lack of transparency and clarity in many administrative processes, says Olga Brudastova, an international Ph.D. candidate in the department of civil engineering and engineering mechanics. Unionizing would allow the student workers to negotiate binding contracts that the university administration can’t change from year to year, says a representative from UAW. Currently, they can’t change their health plan, seek out dental or vision insurance, or ensure workload protection, guaranteed time off, or protection from being arbitrarily fired, he says. Moreover, student workers are concerned about family leaves, lack of due process, and cost of housing. “Rent increases at least 4 percent a year, stipends not so much,” Katz says. “If you live in university-owned housing, then you’re probably spending maybe 45 percent of your income on rent.”

Katz, who’s working on his doctorate in Latin American history and T.A.s a class on ancient Greek history (“We don’t get much say over T.A. assignments,” he notes. “That’s part of the problem”), says he hasn’t been able to afford new eyeglasses. He works on the side as a tour guide — a job that takes away from his studies. He adds that a lot of student workers have to put in long hours at outside jobs.

In 2013, graduate students at NYU won the right to unionize. It’s the only private university with such a student union. When the union at NYU negotiated its first contract, stipends went up by 38 percent, says Katz. Students who teach classes make some $7,000 more than student teachers currently do at Columbia, he adds. Columbia R.A.s and T.A.s are in good company with graduate student workers from the New School, Cornell, and Harvard in the fight to unionize — an effort that is sweeping Northeast universities, says a UAW representative.

“Certainly the voluntary recognition that NYU’s graduate workers fought for and won after more than a decade of struggle was really inspirational to us,” says Katz. So in 2013, graduate student workers at Columbia gathered signatures on union authorization cards, accumulating a democratic majority of support; they brought the decision to Columbia’s administration a year ago.

“Instead of respecting our choice, the administration has spent precious resources on lengthy litigation at the NLRB in the hopes of dragging things out for as long as possible as part of a more than fifteen-year campaign against unionization,” says Chandler Walker, a student organizer who works at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain.

The Columbia administration offered no comment about the upcoming rally but referred to a recent pleading document to the NLRB. The university maintains that the research and teaching assistants are not workers but students, and as such don’t have the right to bargain collectively.

“It seems pretty clear based on this growing outpouring of support from community and political leaders,” Katz says, “that Columbia is on the wrong side of fairness and definitely on the wrong side of history.”