Three weeks since the National Labor Relations Board decided that teaching assistants at private universities could form unions, the debate over unionization continues at Columbia.
The board ruled on Oct. 31 that graduate teaching assistants should be considered employees at a university, as well as students.
In the decision involving New York University, a three-member panel of the board defined teaching assistants as employees eligible to seek collective-bargaining rights. On Nov. 15, the Labor Board officially certified the NYU graduate students as part of a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In its first ruling, the board stated that TAs are "compensated by and under the control of" an employer, and should not be deprived of rights to organize and bargain simply because of their roles as students. TAs at state schools already have these rights, and some private schools, including Yale University and the University of Chicago, have been trying to gain recognition for TA unions. The ruling is significant in that it can pave the way for these private schools, and others, such as Columbia, to follow suit.
Maida Rosenstein, President of Local 2110 of UAW, said she believed the ruling would have an impact on Columbia. It is likely, she said, that "we will see unions at Columbia and other private universities."
Columbia has, in fact, already been involved in the NYU suit. Columbia, along with Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Yale, and others, filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief expressing support for the NYU administration, which was opposed to granting TAs the right to unionize.
According to the 27-page brief, graduate student unions "would fundamentally change the nature of the relationships between students and faculty members … and seriously impinge on important principles of national education policy."
Within the Columbia faculty there is also concern over the unionization of teaching assistants. Eduardo Macagno, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said he hopes that Columbia TAs will not form unions. He stated emphatically that TAs are indeed students, not employees.
"Teaching is only a small part of their life at Columbia," he said. "It is part of their training."
Macagno said that the money they receive is not a salary, but rather "support so they can study and receive training."
At Columbia, any graduate student appointed a fellow, a position that can include working as a TA, receives a stipend of $13,000 for nine months of work. The job of a TA often includes reading and grading homework, papers, and exams; assisting in teaching; leading discussion sessions, lab sessions, and recitations; and occasionally teaching courses on their own.
Currently there is a Graduate Student Advisory Council that acts as a liaison between students and the faculty. The council addresses problems through open discussion that "attempts to take into account the needs of the undergraduate population, the faculty, and the graduate students," Macagno said. Based on the experiences of other institutions, he said that a union would "create an adversarial type of circumstance rather than collegial interaction between teachers and students."
At Yale University, the Graduate Employees Students Organization and the administration have been fighting for 10 years over the issue of TA unions. TAs at various University of California campuses, who also voted to join the UAW, have held strikes in attempts to force the administration to recognize TA unions, which the University ultimately agreed to.
TA Kamran Rastegar said that unions would help professor-student relationships. They would "give professors a clearer sense of what the responsibilities of their TAs will be." Also, a union would negotiate with the administration for salaries from a general fund, reducing the stress on individual departments, he said.
This is not the first time that Columbia has been involved in labor issues. The UAW group that is currently supporting NYU students also includes Columbia support staff workers. In the 1980s, the support staff underwent its own struggles to form a clerical union, and they won the right to unionize in 1985. Rosenstein said that the same arguments Columbia used in the 1980s to fight unionizing of clerical workers are being used again.
At the time, the University was concerned with the secretary/boss relationship; now the student/professor relationship is at stake, she said.
"They were wrong about clerical workers in the 1980s and they are wrong about graduate students now," Rosenstein said.
Columbia TAs do not share a unanimous view on their role in the University. Kim Phillips-Fein, a third-year student in the History Department and TA, said, "Teaching and research assistants are both students and employees. We are students when we work on our research projects with our advisers, go to class, and study for exams. But we are also employees of the University when we teach, carry out research projects, and do other kinds of administrative work. As employees, we have the right guaranteed by U.S. law to form a union and bargain with the university if we decide to do so."
Adam Levitin, a Columbia History Department TA, disagreed.
"I do not see myself as a waged or salaried employee, but as a student and an apprentice," he said. "I don't consider myself in much of a position to make a lot of demands against the University."
He pointed out that acting as a TA is meant to prepare graduate students for "the job market," implying that they are not currently employed.
Most TAs do have concerns that they think could be addressed by unionizing. Jenn Snow, a TA in the Barnard Religion Department, said that being able to bargain collectively would be beneficial in "defining acceptable workloads, getting better pay, and getting more generous housing benefits."
Andras Rosner, a macroeconomics TA, also said a union would be "an effective tool" for bargaining. Like Snow, he added that the stipend TAs receive is "not sufficient."
Although written guidelines for TAs are available online, Rosner would like a better description of a TA's work duties. There is no clear standard, he said, and responsibilities can require anywhere from five to 30 hours a week. Other issues that concern TAs include gaining office space, receiving better health care benefits, and creating a greater sense of community among TAs from different departments.
Phillips-Fein said, "We are people who are dedicating our lives to education, scholarship, and research, and we want to have a say in the conditions under which we teach and do our scholarship. Collective bargaining and organization is the best way for us to protect our interests as teachers and scholars."
Levitin is more ambivalent about unionization. He added that he is nervous that "a union will become a mouthpiece for political sentiments that reflect only a radical segment of the graduate student body."
Conversely, he does see potential benefits in unionization. He agreed with Rosner that the relationship between graduate student and university must be "more explicitly spelled out. I have never been informed of specific responsibilities, rights, and guidelines for 'TAing.' I have no idea where I would turn for recourse if a problem with a professor should ever arise."
In addition, he said he would "love to receive a larger stipend, office space to meet with students, and better resources for teaching."
Rastegar said that the benefits of TA unions would go beyond improved graduate life.
"Happier grad students with a greater voice at the University will certainly attract better and better candidates to the University, raise the quality of education, and help the Administration identify areas where it can improve things for all students," Rastegar said. "To oppose [unions] would mean the Administration cares less for the quality of education and the well- being of its students than it does for the rather petty power it would retain."