As active members of GWC-UAW Local 2110, we were heartened to read the Spectator editorial board’s trenchant call for Columbia’s administration to honor the results of our unionization vote. The editorial board rightly asserted that honoring the results of a fair election is “a matter of democratic principle,” not one of pro- or anti-union opinion. Now, the semester is winding to a close and another graduation approaches and we wonder: Will Columbia’s actions this spring live up to the ideals proclaimed in May’s speeches, ceremony, and circumstance?
We won’t rehash the many reasons why so many of us voted “union yes” in December. Instead, we want to take a moment to clarify the stakes of Columbia’s Herculean efforts to resurrect its disingenuous and unsuccessful anti-union campaign.
When we voted to unionize by a margin of nearly 1,000 votes, graduate workers defeated administrators’ anti-union propaganda at the ballot box. Administrators did not accept our fair, democratic rejection of their efforts. The University filed objections, professing concern for procedural errors that could have impacted the outcome. Like their flood of simplistic, patronizing, anti-union emails in the fall, administrators’ questionable objections have insulted our intelligence.
This spring, the regional National Labor Relations Board found Columbia’s objections as spurious as we did. The regional board handed down a forceful decision in favor of the election’s legitimacy and recommended “overruling the Employer’s objections in their entirety.” However, rather than recognize the ruling, the administration appealed the decision again to the NLRB in Washington, D.C. No substantive changes have been made to their already-rejected case against us—they are simply playing for time.
We must call into question whether the administrators themselves actually believe in the electioneering violations they are ostensibly claiming. What they are actually defending is not a principle of democracy, but a very different principle, which President Bollinger articulated in his fireside chat this semester. Asked by a graduate worker about Columbia’s continued objections to the union election, Bollinger responded, “This is the principle: I do not think of you as my employee within the University.”
Administrators have let their opposition to unionization carry them too far in this fight. They are playing dirty, objecting to procedural issues as a way of fighting over substantive questions of labor rights. Because they have become so entrenched in our division, they see our victory as their defeat. They lost in the courts and then by democratic vote, and now they are trying to win by alleging electoral irregularities whose existence little evidence supports. Sound like anyone else we know?
But the administration is mistaken (perhaps they’ve let their own anti-union fearmongering get the best of them). The union’s victory does not have to mean the University’s loss. As graduate and undergraduate academic workers, GWC-UAW Local 2110 members perform labor that makes Columbia a world-class university. Our teaching and research brings Columbia billions in tuition, grants, and patents. In return, we want to work under stable, enforceable, and mutually negotiated terms. If Columbia is what it says it is—a nonprofit institution dedicated to the pursuit, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge—then it will do better when its academic workers do better.
Spectator’s editorial board has now joined a long list of elected officials and institutions asking Columbia to respect the outcome of our democratic election. Over 170 Columbia faculty members have called on the administration to drop the objections, and 32,000 of our allies around the world have signed a petition asking Columbia to recognize our union and bargain in good faith.
The editorial board hit the nail on the head when it wrote that respecting our election results is “a matter of democratic principle.” In this surreal and frightening political moment, many of us agree that democratic principle is under deep, sustained threat. President Bollinger bravely broke with convention at a traditionally non-partisan event to call President Donald Trump’s administration and worldview “a challenge to what Columbia stands for.” Does Columbia stand for manipulating democratic election results to undermine rights? Does it stand for doublespeak? We sincerely commend President Bollinger for telling us what Columbia stands for. Now we ask that he show us.
For President Bollinger, Provost Coatsworth, and the board of trustees, we have a message: We are here. While you spend millions on law firms to fight our democratic mandate, we have been organizing and preparing for the contract negotiations that must and will come sooner or later. We have been doing what we do as graduate workers every day: teaching, researching, and striving to make Columbia progressively worthier of its own ideals. We want to be proud of the university where we study and work; please stop giving us such good reasons to be ashamed. It is not too late for you to choose a higher road. We are here to meet you at the table when you do.
The authors are members of the Bargaining Committee of GWC-UAW Local 2110. Olga Brudastova is an M.S./Ph.D. student in civil engineering and engineering mechanics, currently employed as a teaching assistant. She has been enjoying this fight for unionization for nearly three years. Sophie Wilkowske is a Columbia College senior and a teaching and research assistant. She was recently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and looks forward to shaking President Bollinger’s hand at graduation. As individual members of a pluralistic union, the authors do not speak for the political beliefs of any members of GWC-UAW but themselves.
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