In the months leading up to the vote to allow Columbia graduate students to unionize, engineering students emerged as a prominent anti-union bloc, voicing concerns that their interests wouldn’t be represented as vigorously as their peers’ in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Now, just months after graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize and as union leaders look to initiate negotiations with the University, many students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science have found themselves unwilling members. And their concern that their voices will be heard in bargaining negotiations remains unassuaged.
This is underscored by the fact that engineering students find themselves in the minority—they comprise approximately one-fifth of all graduate students in the union.
Before the regional National Labor Relations Board announced its rejection of the University’s objections to the unionization vote, the union held elections for a bargaining committee, a group of members intended to represent graduate student workers in negotiations with the University. The bargaining committee will use the results of a survey sent to graduate workers to determine student workers’ needs and raise them with the administration in order to create a contract.
Complaints about the election procedure and representation were brought forward to the Engineering Graduate Student Council. EGSC President Chris Mosher received emails from over 30 students from various departments, including those in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, complaining about the election. Members of EGSC interviewed for this article said that they spoke on their own behalf and not for the student council.
In particular, students were upset that they were required to fill out union support cards before voting. Although the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers decided that eligible voters consisted of all student workers at a previous meeting, the group later added the requirement that eligible voters be union supporters as well
According to bargaining committee representative and civil engineering student Olga Brudastova, voter eligibility was changed because only due-paying union members will be able to vote in elections once a contract is in place. However, the union had not been recognized at the time of the vote, so support was used in place of membership to determine eligibility.
“Their argument is that I should support something if I want to be a part of it—I don’t want to. It’s not my choice,” EGSC Vice President Michael Sutton said. “I didn’t ask for this, but since it’s here, I don’t necessarily have to like it, but I should be able to decide who’s going to represent me. I shouldn’t have to support it to do that.”
Many students who did not want to indicate support did not vote because they were not told that they could complete challenge ballots instead. Only eight people submitted challenge ballots.
During the vote itself, students were asked to put their ballots inside two envelopes and to write their name and department on the outer envelope. Although voting administrators said that this procedure was used to prevent voter fraud and that ballots were later removed from the envelopes, some students were concerned about anonymity.
“I just feel there are so many other ways you could do it without actually having to write someone's name on something that identifies them and their ballot. People were really mad about that,” Mosher said.
The turnout for the bargaining committee vote was significantly lower than the total population of graduate workers. Although the union will represent approximately 3,500 graduate workers, fewer than 1,000 workers voted on the bargaining committee representatives.
“There was a bit of apathy … so maybe the participation is lower than we would hope for, but still it was just one day of voting,” Brudastova said. “Participation was pretty high, so we didn’t expect the turnout that we had in December.”
Students have had similar complaints about the listserv used to disseminate information about the union, including meetings and elections. People who sign up for the mailing list are required to check a box pledging their support for the union, a requirement that was not in place last fall before the initial vote on whether to unionize took place.
“I never had to pledge support to be informed before,” Sutton said. “I don’t think that’s a fair assessment as far as gauging who needs to be informed. I think regardless of whether you like something or not, if you’re affected by it, you have the right to know about it.”
According to Brudastova, the most important information is posted on the GWC website and Facebook page. She argued that workers should have to pledge support in order to stay informed.
“If we want to build a strong contract and a strong union, we want people to express their support for this institution, the union, and their commitment to participate in our activities, whether it’s the bargaining survey or a rally in response to the travel ban,” Brudastova said. “In order to have a strong union, you need to have majority support, and that’s what we’ve been following throughout the campaign.”
The bargaining committee is comprised of 10 representatives, two from each of five jurisdictions: natural sciences in GSAS, humanities and social sciences in GSAS, SEAS, P&S and theMailman School for Public Health, and all professional and other schools, including law and business. The districts were decided on based on the population of graduate workers in each school.
Students were able to vote for all 10 members of the bargaining committee rather than just the two for their jurisdiction.
“By law, everyone in the bargaining committee represents everybody, not just their jurisdiction, so it’s logical,” Brudastova said.”
However, some workers argue that they should only have voted for those who would represent their school.
“It makes sense to me that I know relatively well what I care about, I can look deeply into three or four people more than 20 who are all running, and I can essentially have a better idea of that individual, of who I want representing me,” Sutton said. “The con is just the same. I know zero people in GSAS natural sciences. I am not a good person to say if they’re going to be good for them or for the union in general so that was my opinion.”
According to engineering student Emily Moore, having the entire voting constituency vote for every committee member gave candidates the additional burden of having to reach out to populations they would not represent. Although candidates’ personal statements were made available online, many of the elected representatives ran on slates with candidates from other schools in order to gain traction among voters.
“It becomes a popularity contest rather than based on credibility or if you deserve it,” Moore said. “It's also an impossible task on the people running because now they're having to advertise to all these different groups—and honestly, I don't really care who represents the other schools. I care about who represents my school and if they know what we need.”