Since Columbia’s graduate students voted to unionize in December 2016, the University has reiterated its opposition to the union and refused to negotiate, culminating in a weeklong strike last April that left dozens of Core classes without professors or teaching assistants as protestors marched in a picket line on College Walk.
Tensions have escalated since the National Labor Relations Board—responsible for overseeing US labor law concerning collective bargaining—decided in favor of Columbia University graduate students and overturned a 2004 Brown University decision preventing graduate student unionization at private universities. The NLRB officially certified the Graduate Workers of Columbia last August after years of pushback from the University, which filed a series of objections with the regional and national NLRB citing improper conduct—including surveillance—during the election.
Columbia is currently seeking to challenge graduate students’ eligibility to unionize in federal appellate court.
Most recently, the graduate student union announced that it will not pursue further legal action, choosing instead to pursue “relentless disruption,” potentially including another strike, as a means of increasing pressure on Columbia.
Because this year’s NLRB elections resulted in a majority Republican board, organizers at universities have been deterred from filing petitions that might ultimately yield an anti-union ruling. Graduate students at Yale, Boston College, and the University of Chicago, whose graduate students have all voted to unionize, all withdrew petitions to the board. Nevertheless, administrations at Brown, Harvard, NYU, and the New School have announced their decisions to cooperate with its graduate students rather than pursue legal recourse.
Unionization has remained a topic of national scrutiny, and the increasing number of anti-union rulings throughout the nation has left the fate of graduate student unionization uncertain. The 2018 U.S. Supreme court case Janus v. AFSCME prohibited unions from obligating all public-sector employees to pay “fair-share fees,” a change that some believe will weaken the efficacy of unions.