In the past year, there has been much discussion about graduate employee unionization. Last year's strike highlighted the administration's denial of our right to organize. The National Labor Relations Board's decision last summer to strip us of our rights under federal labor law revealed the degree to which this university has cast its lot with the far-right labor policies of the Bush administration.
The NLRB's tautological reasoning that students are students, not workers, is too transparent to deserve a response. We are undoubtedly students, but we are also paid to provide teaching and research services and are therefore workers. While the conflict over whether graduate employees may or may not unionize has been thoroughly covered, less has been said as to why a majority of graduate employees have repeatedly expressed their desire to do so. The basic forces driving our unionization campaign are clear: we wish to protect our material well-being, gain a voice in the conditions of our employment, and reverse disturbing trends in the direction of the academic work force.
Current graduate student stipends fall far below the basic living wage for New York City. Many students take on second jobs in order to get by. Graduate employees currently receive basic health insurance as part of our compensation, but no dental or vision coverage, childcare provision, sick or family leave. Graduate employee compensation packages are designed for those with family support and those who are able to take on substantial debt. It is little surprise that so many people are discouraged from considering a career in academia.
A union will provide a vehicle for collective bargaining vis-à-vis the administration. This arrangement will allow democratic input as to the levels of our salaries and benefits, and permit us to negotiate over less easily quantifiable aspects of our employment. There is no official job description for a TA at Columbia: we are asked to perform a variety of different tasks. Teaching discussion sections, grading papers and exams, and holding office hours can overwhelm one's research. The administration is aware of the time it takes PhD students to complete dissertations, but they do not seem to recognize the link between the excessive time we spend completing our degrees and our obligations as employees of the university.
In recent years, the prospects of new Ph.D.s in the academic job market have dimmed. Tenured and tenure-track faculty have become increasingly rare; adjuncts, graduate instructors, and other contingent employees now fill this role. It is cheaper to hire part-time and temporary employees than it is to employ a permanent, full-time workforce. Columbians are not alone in their fight for unionization. Parallel campaigns are underway at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. At NYU, graduate students won the first recognized union at a private university and were followed by a successful campaign by adjunct professors there. Unions help secure a fair wage for contingent workers in the academy, eliminating the economic incentives in reducing the permanent workforce.
None of these concerns are new. Administrators have listened sympathetically and faculty members have repeated these criticisms countless times. Expressions of concern are not enough, though. We need change. The solution to these problems lies, at least in part, in unionizing. The effort to unionize has already borne fruit. Following a decade of stagnant stipends, the administration has begun increasing graduate employee salaries. We have seen the power of organized action, and we will continue to act in order to earn a fair wage and adequate benefits, a more democratic university, and a more secure professional future. We ask all members of the university community to stand by us in solidarity.