The Graduate Workers of Columbia, a group comprised of graduate students looking to unionize, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to reopen a 2004 ruling involving Brown University that denied graduate students the ability to become a recognized union.
The move comes after the group's larger efforts to become a recognized union at Columbia, which included a card drive in December to demonstrate that a majority of graduate students support the creation of the union.
"The obstacle we have in the way is a very bad precedent that was set during the Bush years that denied the right of graduate workers to form unions and have collective bargaining rights. And we think the decision is a poor one that will be overturned," UAW Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein said. "The likelihood is that the labor board is going to want to reopen the record office and look at the facts of the case."
Seth Prins, a fourth-year epidemiology student at the Mailman School of Public Health and one of the organizers of the union, said at a town hall meeting Friday that the petition is part of a longer process in their efforts for unionization.
In addition to the collection of informal support cards last semester, the final process requires a formal vote administered by the NLRB.
"The best-case scenario is we might be having an NLRB election on campus in 2016. That's why we wanted to come together today," said Prins.
About 50 students attended the town hall to discuss how to organize future actions as the process to challenge to the 2004 decision gets underway.
"When your goal is to demonstrate a majority through signatures on cards, you have a very clear goal. So we all knew exactly what we were doing last semester," Paul Katz, a second-year history student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and organizer of the graduate workers movement, said of the group's card drive.
Katz said that this semester presents a unique challenge for the organizers of the movement.
"We're at what is, in some ways, a challenging moment but also an exciting moment. We've demonstrated this majority, of course we still need to keep building it— but now we have this, what do we do with it?"
Alex Radtke, a second-year chemistry student at GSAS, said the focus of the town hall was to keep workers active and engaged while they wait on the NLRB.
"It's kind of like a waiting game, it can be a lull. Keeping momentum going is the main thing," Radtke said.
Graduate workers voiced concerns about multiple issues including health care, payment schedule, research funding, job security, and teaching expectations.
Kate Brassel, a classics Ph.D. candidate at GSAS, discussed workers' need to be paid on time. "When we're not paid on time, we don't get paid enough so that not being paid on time isn't a big deal," she said. "If we don't get our money every month, we can't pay basic expenses."
Some students expressed concerns that fewer graduate students from the science departments were present at the town hall than humanities students and that science graduate students signed fewer cards during the drive.
According to Prins, the perceived lack of involvement from student workers in the science departments is related to inaccessibility.
"The people who didn't sign it wasn't because they said no," Prins said in reference to the card drive. "It was actually because we had trouble actually tracking them down and finding them in various labs and parts of campus."
While many graduate students attended because of dissatisfaction with current working conditions, they were careful to specify it was directed at the administrative response. "This is nothing to do with being resentful of having to teach," Brassel said. "I think of it as a structural and administrative problem."
University President Lee Bollinger told Capital New York in January that he believes graduate worker unionization is "not necessary."
Graduate students characterized the University's response as disappointing, but expected.
"No one was particularly surprised to hear that President Bollinger is personally opposed to unionization," Katz said. "I think we all respect his view, especially as basically the chief executive of a multibillion dollar enterprise— of course he's not going to be in favor of unionization."
Still, Prins said the movement's momentum is already a victory.
"Whether you're legally organized or not, you have power," Prins said.