Along with over 140 faculty at Columbia, I signed a statement this week in support of Columbia graduate workers’ unionization efforts.
Before moving to Columbia, I taught at a stellar, mostly undergraduate institution for many years. I thought that working with seniors on their honors theses, sending many of them on to graduate study, and mentoring junior colleagues who were recent Ph.D.s would prepare me for graduate teaching. I was wrong. To be sure, teaching graduate seminars and working with students on taking oral exams and on formulating a dissertation topic are not fundamentally different from the teaching I had done before. Reading dissertation chapters and making suggestions is not that different from mentoring colleagues who are writing their first book.
What is unique to graduate teaching is that it entails a long-term, continuing relationship with students who are in the process of becoming colleagues. It is the gradually developing mutuality of this relationship—the way we come, over the years, to learn from each other, to create an intellectual learning space together, to collaborate and share expertise. These relationships last a lifetime. Graduate students are students in that they do their work under my and my colleagues’ guidance. But they are also colleagues who teach undergraduates, either as teaching assistants or in their own courses. As fellow teachers, we are all employees of Columbia. Though we are at different stages of our careers and have divergent access to the University’s resources, we all share an interest in the fair treatment of all employees here.
Columbia undergraduates may not be aware of these struggles. They may not appreciate the quality of the collaborations between their graduate and faculty instructors to produce the courses they are taking and to insure the quality of teaching and research that characterizes this university. As a senior professor, I learn a great deal about teaching from my graduate students who work as assistants or instructors. My courses might well be as deeply informed by their developing expertise as theirs are by my long-term experience.
Columbia graduate workers won their union fight with a historic ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in August 2016. An overwhelming majority of graduate students (1,062 to 623) voted to join the Columbia chapter of the United Automobile Workers union. They prevailed through two objections to the vote by the University. The administration is now obligated to follow the law and begin bargaining with the union. On Jan. 30, 2018, however, the provost announced that the University would seek to block the union in a federal appellate court. “We remain convinced,” he stated, “that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”
My faculty colleagues and I came together in solidarity to sign the statement in support of graduate workers to affirm that graduate student unionization would not change our academic or intellectual relationship with our graduate students. Rather, it will ensure that graduate workers receive fairer treatment by the institution and that they are able to negotiate their salaries and benefits. It will ensure that their work is treated with the respect and dignity we aim to share with them and with our undergraduate students as their professors.
When universities oppose unionization, they are not protecting faculty-student academic relationships. They are protecting their own financial interests and their administrative control over the labor force that is fundamental to their mission. When we, as faculty, support unionization for graduate student workers, we are protecting the dignity of work and the agency and well-being of all our students and of our present and future colleagues. We ask that the University do the same by following the law and beginning the bargaining process now.
The author is the William Peterfield Trent professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia and a professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
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