Last year, over 2,000 graduate workers at the University—representing a vast majority of the working graduate student body—declared that they had joined together to form a union. Earlier in the semester, a diverse group of students from various Columbia graduate schools found that there was widespread interest among peers in creating a labor union to improve their working conditions. After a successful campaign last fall, we reached out to the University's administration to be recognized as a union, which would allow us to collectively bargain with them over the terms of our labor.
We never got a direct answer. Instead, University President Lee Bollinger acknowledged this call for a more democratic university by hiring an expensive law firm—on Columbia's dime—to prevent a formal union vote.
In whose name was this decision made? In whose name is Bollinger fighting against our labor rights?
In the name of the students? Certainly not. Tuition for undergraduates has been steadily increasing, while students are taught in overcrowded classrooms by adjuncts with no job security. Better working conditions for graduate workers and adjuncts would help improve these subpar learning conditions. Moreover, the kind of academia we want to be a part of—the vision that is at the root of our drive to unionize—consists of a university where all actors, including undergraduates, have a voice in shaping the policies that materially impact their lives.
Is it being done in the name of the professors? That would imply that Bollinger misunderstands the academic relationship we graduate students have with the faculty, who serve as our advisers, which is distinct from the employment relationship we have with the University. A union aims at discussing the material conditions of our work–for example, the quality of our health care benefits, or our salary. These conditions are not decided in each individual case by professors, even for those of us who, as research assistants and postdocs, are funded through our advisers. They are instead managed at the university level. Whether we're unionized or not, therefore, does not make any difference to professors.
Could it be done in the name of graduate workers? Of course not, given that a majority of us want a union. In the name of the administrative support staff, then? Surely not, as most of them are members of the very local union we've been invited to join.
Then in whose name is Bollinger fighting this democratic choice? One can only wonder. In his effort to protect Columbia's $9.6 billion endowment, surely he hasn't forgotten the people who actually make up the University. After all, what is a nonprofit institution like Columbia if not the sum of its students, workers, and researchers?
The drive to organize graduate workers at Columbia is far from an isolated phenomenon–we are not alone in making these demands. Just recently, the contingent faculty members of Barnard formed a union after recognizing that they could not be effective teachers without a voice in deciding their workplace conditions. Their movement is part of a larger undertaking, as is ours.
Graduate workers and adjuncts are pushing for recognition as full members of the academic community in campuses all across the country. Indeed, Columbia is not unique in being a university where students, teachers, and workers are beginning to question whether the educational institutions of today are faithful to their mission of collaborative education and research. Our movement to organize reflects a growing crisis in higher education around the nation.
We call on the Columbia administration to let a union vote be held. Additionally, we ask that the administration remain neutral in the process. Joining our colleagues at Harvard, the University of Chicago, The New School, Cornell, and over a dozen other institutions, we ask our universities to acknowledge that we are workers and to respect our voice. We want to help shape, together with the rest of the academic community, how education and research happen. We invite the Columbia community to join us.
Stéphane Benoist is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics and a member of Graduate Workers of Columbia University.
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