The graduate student union has pledged to hold a strike authorization vote if the University continues to refuse collective bargaining, according to a letter released by union representatives on Monday.
In January 2017, graduate students voted to join the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers after a lengthy legal dispute with the University over the status of graduate students as employees. Columbia has since refused to bargain with the union, disregarding the decision made by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 that granted graduate students the right to unionize.
Union supporters protested on Low Steps last week after the provost’s office released a letter reaffirming the University’s intent not to recognize the union. Representatives of the union have said they are discussing filing an Unfair Labor Practice claim against Columbia, which the University plans to appeal in federal appellate court.
The union’s letter cited petitions signed by thousands of students and the high vote count in favor of unionization in the original election. It argued that the current political environment necessitates cooperation between the University and graduate students and clearly stated its intention to organize a general strike if the University maintains its position.
Olga Brudastova, a SEAS graduate student and communications director for GWC, said that the union expected the strike to gain widespread support if held.
“We have proven once and again that we are capable of organizing the absolute majority of workers,” Brudastova said. “We are very certain that, should we have to strike, thousands of workers will participate.”
In an email sent to Spectator, a University spokesperson reiterated the University’s commitment to contesting unionization in court.
While students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences may lose only a few days of research time should they strike, those in the Graduate School of Engineering may be kicked out of their labs for missing work, which could delay their graduation.
At a town hall last year, Engineering students questioned whether a strike was possible for students who need access to labs in order to conduct their research.
“I need that lab space to do my work, and depending on how long the strike lasts, I would seriously have to halt my research,” one student said. “However, this is not the case for a philosophy or English student who could do their work without a lab. Am I expected to not enter my lab to attain data, or, if I do, what are the repercussions?”
Brudastova said that any retaliation against strikers would be illegal and that the University often tries to divide engineering and GSAS students. Graduate students affiliated with the union are still in the process of determining what, exactly, striking would look like for research assistants.
“I’ve seen how the University has tried to use this divide and conquer tactic and say that we have different concerns,” Brudastova said. “Actually, we’ve seen that we have much more in common in terms of our work conditions and what we are interested in.”