It has been nearly two years since a supermajority of graduate student workers at Columbia declared their intention to unionize as the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW. We filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in December 2014, rejoining a decade-long movement of graduate workers at private universities across the northeast. Until this week, federal regulations implemented in 2004 denied teaching and research assistants at private universities the right to unionize.
On Tuesday, in a highly anticipated ruling, the board overturned its "sharply divided" 2004 decision, and ruled that "student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the [National Labor Relations] Act." The board ruled that this standard applies to graduate students, terminal master's degree students, undergraduates, and research assistants funded by external grants.
The decision is clear: Regardless of department, discipline, or funding source, when we are paid to conduct the teaching and research that makes Columbia a world-class institution, we have the right to bargain collectively with the administration over the conditions of our labor.
The struggle at Columbia pitted graduate workers against an administration that didn't blink at paying exorbitant fees to retain one of the largest anti-union law firms in the country, Proskauer Rose. The administrations of all seven other Ivy League schools, plus Stanford and MIT, joined the Columbia administration on the wrong side of history when they jointly submitted anti-union amicus briefs with the NLRB.
But Columbia graduate workers were not alone. We were joined by a national movement of graduate students from NYU, The New School, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and other private universities fighting for democratic participation in decisions that affect our livelihoods. We have solidarity and support from graduate workers across the University of California system and the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts-Amherst, Washington, and over 60 other public university campuses that already have unions making demonstrable improvements to graduate students' working conditions, all while having a positive effect on academic relationships.
Columbia graduate workers have been successful thus far because collective action gets the goods. We mobilized grassroots support for our rights as workers from virtually every department and every eligible school across Columbia's campuses. We bolstered face-to-face conversations with strong social and news media outreach strategies. Our card-signing campaign was successful because it was committed to diversity, inclusion, transparency, and participatory decision-making. This was truly a grassroots movement.
We hope that the impending "vote yes" campaign will also embody democratic and inclusive values, showing the Columbia community how we can build a fairer university for everyone. We must continue to provide a model for organizing and collective action that stands opposed to the administration's current top-down, unilateral style of decision-making.
The struggle has only just begun. The administration and its proxies have already started to articulate specious narratives, contradicted by empirical evidence, about the implications of unionization. They have spent undisclosed sums on a slick, insidious, "informational" anti-union website, which was obviously prepared before the ink on the NLRB decision was dry, and shared among Ivy League administrations.
In short, Columbia is willing to spend students' tuition money to undermine the rights and working conditions of those same students' teaching assistants, and of the research assistants who are maintaining the University's reputation for academic excellence.
Make no mistake: These ploys are designed to plant doubt and misinformation and ultimately interfere with graduate workers' democratic decision—and right—to unionize. We can expect much more of the same from an administration that has shown a wanton disregard for Harlem residents during its expansion to Manhattanville, a tone-deafness to the current movement for racial justice (and against police violence) with a Public Safety vice president (and former NYPD executive officer) who bragged about the 2014 "gang raid" in the General Grant housing projects according to a Daily Dot report, and an apparent indifference to the most urgent concerns of its students in its ongoing failure to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable in light of the staggering 115 reported instances of gender-based misconduct among undergraduate students during the 2015-16 school year.
The hard part starts now. Research and teaching assistants at Columbia are poised to reshape the future of our university, the broader Columbia community, and private universities across the country. But first, we must persevere against the administration's concerted and exorbitantly funded anti-union campaign by voting in favor of unionization. We must then ensure that we elect a diverse and accountable bargaining committee, one that is committed to participatory and transparent bargaining and to a progressive, social justice-oriented contract.
The opportunity for workers to reclaim real power from elites who have long exploited is rare. Research and teaching assistants at Columbia will have that opportunity in the coming weeks. We must seize it.
Jeff Jacobs is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. Seth Prins was a Ph.D. student in epidemiology from 2011 to 2016, and is now a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of sociomedical sciences. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or position of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW.
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