Provost John Coatsworth has pledged to continue the University’s legal efforts against graduate student unionization in an email to the Columbia community, just days before graduate student union organizers plan to engage in a weeklong strike that will disrupt University operations and leave hundreds of classes without instructors or teaching assistants.
Teaching and research assistants who support the union authorized a strike last week with a vote of 1,832 to 136, after which the union announced it would strike from April 24 through April 30 if the University maintained its refusal to bargain. The union’s strike is the latest development in a long legal battle over graduate students’ right to unionize.
During a strike, it is common for participants to form a picket line, a tactic intended to discourage people from conducting business with the organization against which they are striking. According to a union spokesperson, the union will be picketing across campus during the strike, encouraging faculty and staff to cease their work. These disruptions are intended to supplement the impact of the strike in the classroom.
The Provost’s email urges graduate student union supporters to allow the University to resolve the union debate in court, rather than through actions that would interfere with student’s educational progress. It also argues that unionization itself would not be appropriate because all graduate students would have to pay dues and be represented by UAW regardless of their personal support for the union.
“The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years depending the political make-up of the board,” Coatsworth wrote in the letter. “That is why we think it essential to seek a judicial review of this central and still-unsettled question.”
As of now, the union plans to follow through on its striking and picketing plan. A union spokesperson said that the strike would begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and that the main picket would take place on College Walk. Picketers may also be present in front of some academic buildings as well as in front of delivery entrances, as unionized delivery drivers most likely will not break a picket to make deliveries.
According to a website recently created by the Provost’s office, some professors may change the locations of their classes or hold them via video conference in order to avoid crossing the picket line. For classes that are cancelled, the University has pledged that makeup work is arranged such that “all instructional objectives are met.” Since these arrangements will be made at the departmental level, it is possible that there will be variation in the way that different departments accommodate for missed classes.
As both sides looks to the courts to decide in their favor, President Donald Trump’s third nominee was recently sworn in at the National Labor Relations Board, the federal judicial body overseeing all officially recognized unions, giving Republicans a 3-2 majority on the board.
If a graduate student union at another university challenges their administration’s refusal to bargain, then the new NLRB might overturn the original ruling that allowed graduate students to unionize. In response to this possibility, graduate student unions at Yale, Boston College, and the University of Chicago have withdrawn their petitions for NLRB recognition.
If the NLRB does not intervene in further graduate student unionization cases, then Columbia’s case will be decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit has a majority of appointees from Democratic presidents, and Columbia could appeal to the Supreme Court if the Second Circuit decides against it.