Graduate students at Columbia University are hoping to form a labor union, potentially upsetting nearly a decade of legal precedent. On Friday, some 200 Columbia students delivered a letter to the office of university President Lee Bollinger, asking that he agree to “a fair and efficient process to recognize our union without delay.”
“Like other workers, we deserve living wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations and consistent and transparent employment policies,” write the graduate students who signed the letter.
If the students’ unionization bid is successful, Columbia will become one of just two private U.S. universities to bargain with a graduate student union. The other university would be Columbia’s downtown neighbor, NYU, which granted union recognition to its student workers roughly one year ago.
The Columbia graduate students are hoping the school’s administration will follow NYU’s lead and agree not to challenge their bid for union recognition. Should Columbia fight the students’ efforts to organize, they will have to take their case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And if the labor board allowed the Columbia students to hold a unionization election, it would overturn a decade-old legal precedent against recognizing graduate students as workers and would have a ripple effect throughout higher education.
The labor victory at NYU emboldened some Columbia University graduate students to seek out a union of their own. They began seriously discussing the possibility of unionization in late 2014 with Uniting Academic Workers (UAW) Local 2110, the union that represents NYU graduate students and some full-time staff at Columbia University.
“After the NYU election in December, people decided they wanted to get really serious about organizing a union,” said Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein. “But there had been prior conversations, and there was an initial meeting that was very well attended by people from different departments.”
One of the graduate students to show interest in unionizing early on was George Aumoithe, a Ph.D candidate in the History department. Aumoithe told Al Jazeera that teaching stipends and benefits need to be addressed through collective bargaining.
“Our dental care allows for one visit per year. There’s no vision care,” said Aumoithe. He said graduate students in on-campus housing had complained of instances in which “the percentage increase in rent outstripped the percentage increase in stipends."
Olga Brudastova, a graduate student in the engineering school, said she would often receive her stipend late during her first year at Columbia.
“I feel like bargaining over contracts and having a contract that prohibits late payments might be a good thing,” she said.
Columbia University declined to comment for this article, and has given no indication whether it intends to grant the students’ request for union recognition.
Board precedent is not currently in favor of the graduate students. In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants at Brown University were not employees of the school and were therefore not eligible to seek union recognition. That decision didn’t just thwart the ambitions of graduate students at Brown: It also killed what was then a nascent organizing effort at Columbia University.
NYU graduate students already had union recognition, but within a couple of years the school’s administration had decided to stop recognizing their union. Only in 2013 did NYU agree to once again bargain with its graduate teaching assistants, circumventing the NLRB decision.
Although the 2004 ruling remains in place, Columbia University graduate students are hopeful that the NLRB would see fit to overturn precedent. In 2004, Republicans had a 3-2 majority on the labor board; now the president is a Democrat, and the board has a Democratic majority.
“I think there’s reason to think they would get a better hearing through this National Labor Relations Board,” said Rosenstein of the Columbia students. “That decision was a horrendous, partisan, right-wing decision.”
If the 2004 decision were overturned, it would open the door for graduate students at other private universities — including Brown — to start new organizing drives of their own.
Meanwhile, although NYU graduate students have union recognition, relations with the administration remain tense. Currently, the NYU administration and the graduate students’ union are deadlocked over contract negotiations, and the union is in the process of conducting a strike authorization vote.
“There’s not a public strike deadline right now, but there’s a vote going on,” said Rosenstein. “And we’re simultaneously in mediation.”
NYU spokesman John Beckman confirmed that the union and the administration are currently negotiating with the help of an independent mediator.
“We believe the mediator, who began his work with us all this week, will be very helpful in narrowing the gap between our positions,” he told Al Jazeera over email.