For months, much has been written in the pages of Spectator about efforts to unionize Columbia’s student teaching and research assistants. Union organizers have energetically exercised their right to communicate their views to our campus community. Similarly, the University has expressed its reasons for opposing the effort, often through letters I periodically have sent to our students, faculty, and staff.
The points of contention are well known by now. Union advocates choose to frame this controversy as a matter of democratic choice, even as we have pointed out that those voting to embrace the union and to authorize a strike constitute only a minority of eligible teaching and research assistants presently enrolled. Moreover, the union fails to recognize the anti-democratic reality of binding student assistants who will arrive here in future years and therefore be given no say in whether their relationship with Columbia’s faculty and administration will be mediated through union representatives.
Some have tried to portray the University as hostile to collective bargaining and unionization, a confounding argument in light of the fact that Columbia has long negotiated terms of employment with the representatives of thousands of Columbia employees who are members of more than a dozen unions.
Union organizers also claim that the University is unconcerned with the burdens shouldered by our students who serve as teaching and research assistants. As I have said repeatedly, we recognize the challenges faced by graduate students, and we appreciate the formidable demands involved in pursuing a career in the academy.
We have been working to strengthen the support and to expand the resources dedicated to graduate students; fulfilling the University’s mission requires no less. This has taken the form of annual 3-3.75 percent increases in the stipends of Morningside Ph.D. students, improvements in parental leave and childcare subsidies, and advancing students’ interests in federal policy debates over immigration and tax laws. To be sure, there is more to be done, and we look forward to working with our graduate students on additional enhancements to their Columbia experience.
With the union initiating a strike and the potential for widening acrimony between the sides, my goal here is not to resolve these disputes, but to locate common ground on two related issues for which I believe there is a basis for constructive dialogue.
First, it should be recognized that the impetus for the University’s course of action is a bedrock belief that research and teaching assistants are students, and they should not be classified as employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The basis for this view goes beyond the considerable value of the tuition, stipends, and benefits that Columbia typically provides to Ph.D. students. The University seeks to bring to our campus the most talented, early-career scholars and scientists in the world and to then provide the education, mentorship, and training necessary for each to fulfill her or his potential. The model in place today has succeeded in launching the careers of successive generations of scholars. A unionized graduate program that sidelines deans, department chairs, and other academic leaders from working directly with students to customize the rules governing teaching and research will, I fear, throw this system into disarray and damage the progress of the very students who would, according to the GWC-UAW, be the beneficiaries of unionization.
The second guiding principle we have adhered to throughout is that the status of graduate students is too consequential an issue to be decided on the basis of passing political advantage. Recent history proves beyond question that the resolution of the employment status of student assistants by the NLRB will not be stable or lasting. The union’s charges about the current makeup of the National Labor Relations Board serve to confirm this very point. Non-partisan resolution of this issue in the federal courts is the only means to achieve clarity. Yet we cannot secure that outcome unilaterally; with the dispute in its current posture, it is up to the union, not the University, to make the next move leading to a resolution in court.
I am under no illusions that my plea for an alternative to striking and the disruption it causes will move union advocates to change course. What I do hope, however, is that our campus community can come to a shared understanding of what is at stake, where the parties agree, and where we differ. The question of whether research and teaching assistants are students, as we believe, or university employees, as the GWC-UAW contends, needs to be resolved, and the federal courts are the venue for doing so.
The author is the provost of Columbia University.
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