Provost John Coatsworth sent an email to the graduate student union on Thursday evening stating that the University would maintain its opposition to unionization and warning against a potential strike.
Graduate students voted to unionize under Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers in December 2016 after Columbia’s efforts to prevent a vote were defeated in court. Since then, however, Columbia has refused to bargain with the union and has attempted to overturn the ruling that authorized graduate students to unionize.
Until now, GWC has responded to the University’s position against unionization primarily through protests and petitions. Recently, however, the union released a letter threatening to call for a strike authorization vote if its demands for recognition are not met.
Spectator was provided with a copy of the Provost’s email sent to the union on Thursday afternoon. When reached for comment four hours after the email was sent, union spokesperson Olga Brudastova told Spectator she was not aware of the email and did not provide comment at the time.
The union posted a statement on their website on Saturday afternoon rebutting the Provost’s email and warning that a strike is imminent if the University continues to refuse to bargain.
In the email, Coatsworth wrote, “The University will not be altering the position set forth in my January 30 letter. Our principled disagreement with [the union] about the employment status of teaching and research assistants is … [a] fundamental legal question … that should be decided by the courts.”
However, the email stated that the University would face “incalculable damage to [its] world class teaching, scholarship, and research” if graduate students stopped teaching classes or left their research posts. Engineering students expressed a similar sentiment at a town hall last year: Several students argued that a strike would be particularly harmful to the School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate students because, unlike their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, they cannot do research from home and must do so in labs on campus.
Union leaders have previously alleged that Columbia is delaying negotiations until a newly conservative National Labor Relations Board can overturn the original ruling that allowed Columbia graduate students to unionize. Although President Trump has the power to appoint new commissioners, slow progress in selecting and confirming nominees means that the NLRB does not yet have a majority of Republican nominees.
Without a clear majority in Columbia’s favor on the NLRB and with an appellate court hearing potentially months or years away, Columbia may continue to refuse to bargain with the union.
The email also noted that unionization efforts at other universities have recently stalled, meaning that it is less likely that “a broader national resolution will occur.”
Coatsworth stated that although the University opposed unionization, it would still work to improve graduate students’ experiences.
“None of this is to say that we are unmindful of the many challenges of being a graduate student in 2018, and particularly in New York City,” he wrote.
Coatsworth’s email can be read in full below:
“Dear representatives of GWC-UAW Local 2110:
The University will not be altering the position set forth in my January 30 letter. Our principled disagreement with you about the employment status of teaching and research assistants is an issue that the NLRB has been unable to resolve conclusively, alternating every few years between the view you espouse and the one we hold. As I have said, this fundamental legal question is one that should be decided by the courts; only that outcome will bring clarity and stability to the operations of universities and colleges in the United States.
Recent decisions to withdraw union organizing efforts at other universities have reduced the likelihood that a broader national resolution of this issue will occur. I therefore want to take this opportunity to be transparent about several facts that, in our view, are incompatible with treating research and teaching assistants as employees.
Graduate students attending Columbia are admitted because of their potential to excel as scholars and teachers. This is not an abstract idea but the essence of what the University is engaged in doing every day. For example, in the event a graduate student’s performance is subpar, she would not be fired as may be the case with an employee; instead, the student is provided additional training and tutoring, and every opportunity to raise her standard for successful completion of the research, dissertation, and other academic work necessary for fulfillment of the relevant degree requirements. When those requirements are met, graduation does not mark the end of our relationship with that scholar; rather, faculty invest considerable time and employ their professional relationships to identify positions at another institution, an effort that in commercial settings would be akin to training personnel and then placing the emerging talent with a competing business. In keeping with this reality, graduate student compensation cannot be measured simply by stipend paid and benefits provided—as essential as those are to our students’ quality of life—but includes the far larger value, typically in the range of $50,000 annually, of the full tuition cost of attending Columbia University. In all of these ways, we are training and helping to launch the careers of the next generation of scholars and scientists. The model in place today has allowed us to pursue quite successfully this core mission of the University; a different model may not.
None of this is to say that we are unmindful of the many challenges of being a graduate student in 2018, and particularly in New York City. Pursuant to an earlier commitment, Ph.D. students on our Morningside campus are in the middle of a three-year period during which their stipends are being increased by a minimum of 3 percent annually, a rate of increase exceeding that secured by graduate students represented by unions at other institutions. We have also announced improvements in parental leave and childcare subsidies, and the assumption of service fees for our international students. These will soon be followed by enhancements in other significant areas.
I urge you to consider these points should you remain determined to contemplate a course of action that might result in a strike, a momentous act that would cause incalculable damage to the world class teaching, scholarship, and research that has attracted thousands of students and faculty to Columbia.
John H. Coatsworth”