Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Columbia grad students go on strike to protest university’s efforts to block unionization

April 25th, 2018 | Elham Khatami

More than a year after graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, hundreds of students participated in a walkout Tuesday to protest the university’s refusal to bargain with them.

The students plan to stage a week-long strike during what is the university’s most hectic time, when students and professors are preparing for finals and the help of graduate teaching assistants, fellows, and research assistants is critical.

They claim that the university has “repeatedly ignored” the majority support among graduate students for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University-United Automobile Workers (GWC-UAW). This, despite the fact that efforts to unionize have been ongoing for more than three years.

The conflict between the university and its students regarding unionization is rooted in a fundamental disagreement about whether or not graduate students are university employees — students argue that they are, and the university contends that they’re not.

The distinction is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of rights, better wages, and improved working conditions. According to a January 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, graduate teaching assistants have taken on heavier workloads, have more responsibility when it comes to teaching and grading, and assume much of the research that ends up winning the universities grants and prestige.

“And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage,” the report stated.

The EPI report found that between 2005 and 2015, the rise in graduate assistant and non-tenure-track faculty jobs surpassed that of tenured and tenure-track jobs, with the former currently making up approximately 73 percent of the academic workforce.

“The simple explanation for this increasing reliance on graduate and non-tenure-track faculty is that they are far less costly to employ,” the report reads.

In a statement last week, Columbia University provost John H. Coatsworth said “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.”

Coatsworth noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has “repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years,” and called for a judicial review of the “still-unsettled question.” The most recent decision came in 2016, when the NLRB ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form a union. That ruling is expected to be reversed again under the current Trump administration.

Other universities across the country, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have also recently taken steps toward unionization. Harvard graduate students voted to unionize with UAW last week.

“This growing momentum makes clear that Columbia’s efforts to block our democratic rights here on our campus cannot hold back the rising tide of academic workers seeking to improve our conditions and make our universities more just and inclusive for all,” a statement posted on the GWC website on Monday reads. “Columbia administration needs to get on the right of history and negotiate with our union.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

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