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Unionizing graduate teaching and research assistants met resistance from Columbia this year, and faced a legal struggle that remains unresolved.

Unionizing graduate teaching and research assistants met resistance from Columbia this year, and faced a legal struggle that remains unresolved.

Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, the group of graduate students attempting to unionize, points to late payment checks, unclear administrative structures, poor medical benefits, and insufficient teaching training and expectations as reasons for unionizing.

Columbia argues that graduate student unionization is unnecessary and will "adversely affect their educational experience," citing current National Labor Relations Board precedent that denies graduate teaching and research assistants at private universities the right to unionize.

GWC and Columbia are currently debating graduate students' right to unionize in NLRB hearings, which come after the NLRB's decision to reconsider legal precedent by granting review of GWC's petition for recognition.

If GWC gains official recognition, there would be an election in which graduate students vote to determine whether they want a union, after which they would elect representatives to collectively bargain with Columbia for a contract.


The movement began in January 2014, when a group of graduate students began talking about unionizing as a resolution to problems with health benefits, pay, and job security expectations.

The graduate students joined with United Auto Workers, the union that backs New York University's graduate student union and some Columbia employees, and reached out to teaching and research assistants to gauge interest in a union.

GWC went public with a letter to Columbia on Dec. 5 after reporting that it collected support cards for unionization from 1,700 of the 2,800 total graduate students

GWC met resistance from Columbia, which cited the 2004 NLRB decision involving Brown University that classified graduate teaching and research assistants as "primarily students," not employees, and said a union would hurt academic freedom.

"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," a Columbia spokesperson said.

The role of a union

GWC organizers say a contract, which graduate students do not currently have, would address the late payment checks, lack of job security, unclear administrative structures, poor medical benefits, and insufficient teaching training that they have cited as reasons for unionizing.

NYU and its graduate union recently negotiated a contract in a process that may serve as a model for what collective bargaining could look like at Columbia. The NYU contract includes pay increases, more comprehensive health care coverage, and a grievance procedure for graduate students to follow.

The grievance procedure is particularly significant for GWC, which has emphasized late pay as a serious grievance it plans to address if it gains union recognition. According to GWC organizers, a grievance procedure would clarify the process for correcting late payment, as well as other issues such as job or funding termination.

However, a spokesperson for Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences said late pay is rare, and University President Lee Bollinger has said that if late pay is a problem, a union would not be necessary to solve it.

NLRB hearings and the likelihood of recognition

Following Columbia's refusal to voluntarily recognize GWC, organizers filed a petition for recognition with the NLRB. The New York region NLRB director dismissed the petition, but the national level reinstated it and called for hearings in a decision to reconsider the Brown precedent on March 13.

According to lawyers, at stake is whether graduate teaching and research assistants classify as both students and employees. Columbia's lawyers have tried to establish that the role of graduate teaching and research assistants is educational, while GWC's lawyer has argued that their role is also professional.

The hearings, which began on March 31, have included testimony from Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Carlos J. Alonso, Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, and Core Curriculum Director Roosevelt Montas.

"All the testimony shows that the student workers provide services that help fulfill the mission of the University," Thomas Meiklejohn, Partner at Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly PC and GWC's legal counsel, said. "There's no inconsistency between learning and getting an educational benefit and working and doing a job."

Edward Brill and Bernard Plum, who serve as Columbia's legal counsel from the firm Proskauer Rose, have consistently declined to comment.

The hearings will continue at least through mid-May. GWC organizers have said that if they receive a favorable NLRB ruling, the soonest they can hope for an election on unionization is in spring 2016.

GWC could also officially unionize with voluntary recognition from Columbia, which is how the NYU union gained recognition at its institution.

Next steps

While GWC waits for an NLRB ruling, organizers say they will continue to mobilize. This semester, GWC has held town halls, organized workshops to help students with taxes and visas, and conducted a teach-in on the union for undergraduate students.

Meanwhile, whether GWC gains official recognition remains in the hands of the NLRB as it decides whether to overturn precedent and grant graduate students at private universities the right to unionize. According to former Chair of the NLRB Wilma Liebman, while Columbia has clout, the NLRB may still rule for GWC.

"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."  |  @EmmaKolchin

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