The ability of graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia to unionize hinges on the debate over whether or not they can be defined as both students and workers.
In order to gain official recognition as a union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia, the group of graduate students petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for recognition, must prove that graduate teaching and research assistants are employees under the National Labor Relations Act.
That would require the board to overturn a precedent set in a 2004 decision concerning Brown University, which stated that students have a "primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university," and thus do not enjoy a right to organize and collectively bargain.
"I think what they have to do is make the case that the dissent in Brown had the better view of the law," Wilma Liebman, who served on the NLRB for 14 years and served as the chair from 2009 to 2011, said. Liebman was one of two board members who voted to classify teaching and research assistants as employees.
While NLRB precedent currently does not recognize private university graduate unions, the board has gone back and forth for decades about whether graduate students can simultaneously be students and employees, and whether forming a union as employees will diminish the "student" aspect of the graduate experience.
When New York University graduate students similarly petitioned to be recognized as a union in 2000, the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching and research assistants are compensated for their services and therefore are employees with the right to unionize, after NYU recognized the union last year.
"Most of the graduate assistants are statutory employees, notwithstanding that they simultaneously are enrolled as students," it said.
According to Thomas Meiklejohn, GWC's lawyer and a partner at the law firm Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly PC, the positions are not mutually exclusive.
"The proposition that one cannot be both a student and an employee is really patently absurd," Meiklejohn said in an email.
According to Liebman, the former chair of the NLRB, the majority in Brown saw teaching and research assistant positions for graduate students as "a manifestation of their educational requirements" rather than jobs that fall under the purview of the Act.
However, Valerie Bondura, a member of GWC and second year graduate student in the anthropology department, says Columbia treats her as an employee and a student, with funding largely dependent on teaching.
"Two-thirds of my total pay is in biweekly paychecks, and that is directly tied to my teaching," Bondura said. "Columbia does list me as an employee in their systems, they pay me hourly, they determine how many hours I work a week."
As the board reviews GWC's petition to unionize, it must take into account the Brown decision's warnings of the dangers of allowing graduate students to collectively bargain.
"There is a significant risk, and indeed a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process," it read. "Collective bargaining would intrude upon decisions over who, what, and where to teach or research—the principal prerogatives of an educational institution like Brown."
A Columbia spokesperson affirmed the sentiment in the Brown decision.
"As the NLRB found in the Brown University case, we believe that treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience. Our concern is that the unique academic program—and collaboration with faculty mentors—that each individual student develops in graduate school are unlike a typical employer-employee relationship, and are not well-served by a one-size-fits-all collective-bargaining process," the spokesman said.
In an email to Spectator, Zachariah Norman, a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department, voiced similar concerns about a generalized bargaining process.
"Our union representatives will be graduate students who we will need to coordinate with to get things done. One more busy person between me and administration is not a positive development," Norman wrote.
Meiklejohn, the GWC's lawyer, said that collective bargaining will not damage graduate students' educational experiences.
"The idea that collective bargaining would somehow be bad for the graduate workers is very paternalistic and I might even say disrespectful of the student employees themselves," he wrote in an email.
Bernard Plum, who serves as part of Columbia's legal council from the firm Proskauer Rose, declined to comment. In its response on Columbia's behalf to the GWC petition to the New York region NLRB, Proskauer Rose repeatedly referred to the Brown precedent.
However, Liebman believes there is a possibility that the NLRB will reverse the Brown decision.
"At the moment at least they have a board that would be sympathetic to these arguments," Liebman said.
Though the NYU graduate union gained recognition without an NLRB ruling, Natasha Raheja, a member of the NYU union's bargaining committee, hopes that Columbia graduate workers will work to overturn the Brown decision.
"I hope that they get a successful NLRB ruling because that would set up the legal precedent for graduate workers at other private universities," Raheja said.
Whether the NLRB will overturn the Brown precedent and force Columbia to recognize the graduate student union remains to be seen. According to Liebman, "there's always pushback" against overturning precedent, though that will not necessarily prevent the NLRB from doing it.
"The Ivy League has a certain amount of clout, and the Board is just a controversial agency, it's a lightning rod. So sure, it will attract attention," Liebman said. "That doesn't mean that one can't get past it, that doesn't mean that the majority is going to be discouraged by that."