The University has filed an objection with the National Labor Relations Board regarding the vote by teaching and research assistants to unionize, and is now asking that the NLRB set aside the election's results and hold a new election.
Students voted 1602 to 623 in favor of joining Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers two weeks ago. The election followed two years of campaigning by graduate students, after which the NLRB—a five-person governing body in Washington—gave graduate students at private universities the right to unionize in August.
The University's objections were based on conduct that occurred on the days of the election, alleging that GWC-UAW agents were stationed within 100 feet of polling places, unfairly surveilled voters leaving the polling place in Earl Hall, and "improperly coerced a substantial portion of eligible voters," according to the statement of objection filed with the NLRB.
Additionally, the University claimed that an NLRB agent prematurely closed the polling station at the Columbia University Medical Center. The statement of objection also cited confusion over identification required to vote, claiming that the decision made by the NLRB less than 24 hours before the election to loosen identification requirements could have allowed ineligible individuals to vote.
The University declined to make any administrator available to be interviewed on the matter.
Over 100 graduate students responded to these objections by holding a protest outside Low Library on Monday afternoon.
"Although there may have been some procedural difficulties, I think that the size of the margin indicates that there wasn't any systematic difficulty in the election results," Gary Howarth, a graduate student in chemistry and GWC organizer, said at the protest. "With the 72 percent victory, I think it's a resounding [vote] in favor, and I don't imagine that any small problems could counteract that mandate."
Many at the protest expressed concern that the University's objection to the election could postpone unionization until after President-elect Donald Trump assumes office and has the power to appoint more staunchly anti-union NLRB members.
"They can say whatever they want to say, but everybody knows that this was done democratically. ... The only reason why you would contest this election is if you wanted to delay the fair process of bargaining," Danielle Carr, a graduate student in anthropology, said. "I think this is the strategy we're going to see going forward in the Trump administration as people refuse to recognize the power of the workers."
According to the NLRB's website, board members are appointed by a president for 5-year terms, with the term of one member ending each year. They are confirmed by the Senate. This means that Trump will not be able to appoint an entirely new board immediately upon taking office. However, the board voted three to one in favor of the right of student assistants to unionize earlier this year—two conservative appointees could be enough to tip the decision back.
The University's objection to the election was filed a week after Provost John Coatsworth sent an email to students and faculty acknowledging the vote to unionize and thanking those who voted.
Karen Fernbach, the NLRB regional director for New York will review the University's objection and may order a hearing to evaluate the claims it raises before determining whether or not to hold a new election.
Cara Maines contributed reporting.