The Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers isn’t just a union for graduate students: Undergraduate course assistants, teaching assistants, and graders are also welcome in the bargaining unit. In order to better represent themselves, organizers have recently pushed to get undergrads more involved in the union through town hall organization and direct outreach. Two of my undergrad coworkers were even ready to pledge support and join the organizing committee.
Unfortunately, our union representatives wouldn’t allow them to sign authorization cards and become full union members. Their reasoning? The union doesn’t consider Barnard students to be Columbia student employees, despite the fact that they work for a Columbia department.
Even though students working for Barnard departments can’t be covered by a GWC contract—Barnard is a financially separate institution from Columbia, after all—some Columbia departments, like computer science, do hire Barnard students. In these departments, student workers are all employed by Columbia, get the same paychecks, are assigned to the same workplaces, and work with the same students. They even get the same degree when they graduate! The representatives' decision, though, means that Barnard student workers, even if they work for Columbia, won’t be able to vote on a contract that affects their pay and working conditions—nor will they be allowed to vote for the bargaining representatives who support their interests.
They also won’t benefit from contract provisions specific to union members. For example, one of the GWC-UAW’s signature proposals is their Grievance and Arbitration article. If adopted, Columbia’s student workers would be able to file grievances with the union, which could be decided by a neutral arbitrator. GWC says this “is especially important in grieving cases like sexual harassment and discrimination or unjust dismissal.”
Accepting the premise that Barnard students are not union members means that they can’t use union resources, including those involved in filing grievances. Counterintuitively, such a contract would directly contribute to workplace inequality. Barnard workers at Columbia will, at best, be relegated to being neutral observers during negotiations. At worst, they will become a second class of employees; they may see some pay raises, but will have a reduced say in how their workplace is run and lack the institutional support that Columbia students get.
What’s most disappointing to me isn’t that Barnard is being excluded from union representation. As unfortunate as that would be, it would at least be somewhat understandable if the oddly-defined Barnumbia relationship introduced hazards that would make it impossible to negotiate legal rights. What’s disappointing is that our union representatives won’t even try to represent its workers and remain stubbornly committed to a less inclusive interpretation of the unit that they created.
In one of their briefs for the National Labor Relations Board, the GWC-UAW argued that undergraduate TAs “[perform] the same duties” as Ph.D. candidates, and that “the undergraduates who are being taught cannot tell whether they are being taught by doctoral, masters or undergraduate students.” Similarly, undergraduates can’t tell whether they are being taught by Barnard or Columbia students. Still, the union undermines its own arguments by continuing to negotiate with the implicit assumption that Barnard workers shouldn’t be represented. They also threaten to widen the divide between Barnard and Columbia with vacuous yet legally binding distinctions between their students, to the detriment of—seemingly as always—Barnard.
None of this is to say that the GWC-UAW as a whole is to blame. The UAW has been a key partner in organizing and legally defending our union, and other GWC organizers and bargaining committee members support the inclusion of Barnard workers. However, until our union representatives take their responsibility to bargain in the interest of all our workers more seriously, this ideal is unlikely to be achieved. This is why workers and organizers, including myself, are petitioning the union to commit to representing Barnard students working for Columbia.
Our union is built on transparent and democratic decision-making. If the union has a substantial rationale for its outright exclusion of workers from its bargaining unit, it needs to be communicated clearly to its members. Otherwise, it needs to make a good faith effort to bargain in the interests of all of its workers.
The number of Barnard instructional assistants in Columbia departments may not be tremendously high, but they are workers nonetheless and deserve the same rights for the same work. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice a fair, strong contract for a more expediently negotiated one, and this is a trade-off that should alarm every single member of the GWC’s bargaining unit.
The author is a graduate of SEAS, class of 2019. Before graduating, he was an undergraduate teaching assistant and a union organizer.
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