Since 2000, graduate students at Columbia have tried several times to establish a union in order to secure collective bargaining rights. Most recently, a petition filed to the regional division of the National Labor Relations Board was denied. As undergraduates, we have a vested interest in ensuring the fair and proper treatment of graduate students. They teach our courses, grade our papers, answer our questions, and have a large hand in the research that is conducted at Columbia. Unionization would allow them to actively enforce their right to satisfactory working conditions.
Although graduate students have already organized a union, the Columbia administration refuses to recognize it. In 2000, a graduate student union at New York University was formally recognized, leading to increased average stipends, lowered health insurance costs, and higher overall satisfaction. The results of unionization at NYU are encouraging, given that none of Columbia's purported concerns about graduate student performance have actually materialized there.
The controversy over graduate student unionization has focused on the classification of graduate students as employees or students. In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vs. NYU (2000), the NLRB unanimously decided to overturn a 25-year precedent and declare graduate students to be employees—the case that allowed NYU's union to be recognized. Shortly after, though, NLRB vs. Brown (2004) reversed NYU (2000), creating a legal barrier to all pending union applications.
In agreement with NYU (2000), we believe that graduate students should be considered employees. Graduate students perform work under the direct power of an employer. The work performed is compensated by wages, and the IRS taxes the wages as such. The case made in Brown (2004) argued that the work of graduate teaching assistants and resident advisers is required to satisfy educational requirements and thus is educational, not economic, in nature. This argument, however, relies on the faulty logic that education and employment are somehow mutually exclusive. A student can be educationally enriched by work performed for the University that nevertheless constitutes employment.
The amount of vague rhetoric utilized by the Columbia administration is troubling. Columbia must be open and transparent as to how it anticipates unionization to be damaging. Specifically, we question three common, but cryptic, claims made by Columbia.
Columbia maintains that faculty-student interactions could be harmed. This claim is refuted by what is known about already established graduate student unions. There are 61 public universities with graduate student unions, the oldest of which was established in 1970. Of the existing unions, studies indicate that the faculty-student relationship may actually be improved by unionization. Further, the American Association of University Professors is in support of allowing graduate students to unionize.
Columbia claims that "academic freedom" will be jeopardized by unionization. One case made in Brown (2004) expressed concern as to whether a graduate student union would "infringe on the right to speak freely in the classroom and on traditional academic decisions, including course length and content." Given the concerns that prompted organization—late paychecks, sudden rises to medical plans and family benefits—it's difficult to believe that graduate students are concerned with tampering with academic freedom as it was defined by the NLRB. Moreover, issues of academic freedom can be identified and confronted through collective bargaining.
University President Lee Bollinger has stated that he believes the student-university relationship is "greater than that of the employer-employee." Unfortunately, President Bollinger misses the underlying message expressed by the desire for graduate student unionization. Graduate students feel as though their needs aren't being prioritized by the University; the student-university relationship is clearly inadequate as a means of taking care of the basic needs of graduate students.
To be fair, we cannot know the entirety of the implications of graduate student unionization. What will the effects be from department to department? How will unionization affect Columbia's financial structure? Will it significantly affect University operating costs? What will unionization mean if undergraduate TAs and RAs are included?
Despite these questions, we feel as though graduate students should be allowed to unionize, by virtue of the fact that they feel disadvantaged in their relationship with the University. If unionization will negatively impact the academic environment, the administration needs to be transparent and specific about how that might be the case. As of yet, it has not. We believe graduate students who have the collective bargaining power of a union to advocate for their interests with the administration will make Columbia better.
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