Columbia grad student workers: University stalling on bargaining

NEW YORK (PAI) — Even though Columbia University’s teaching assistants and research assistants voted overwhelmingly nine months ago to unionize with the Auto Workers, the university’s administration still refuses to recognize and bargain with the union, the students told two U.S. representatives and other officeholders on Sept. 20.

And that not only hurts the students, but also hampers the research they do for Columbia, one of the nation’s top universities, they explained.

The UAW won the recognition vote, but wasn’t officially declared the victor until the National Labor Relations Board ruled TAs and RAs at private universities in general, and Columbia in particular, are “employees” under labor law who could organize and bargain.

That gave a boost to a campaign by several unions, including the Auto Workers, the Teachers and the Communications Workers, to organize TAs and RAs—who are notoriously overworked and underpaid and have no tenure – at private colleges nationwide.

Left unsaid at the meeting, convened by Reps. Jerry Nadler and Grace Meng, both D-N.Y.: That ruling, by a 3-2 Democratic majority of the board, all named by Democratic President Barack Obama, reversed a pro-university, anti-TA ruling by the prior GOP Bush-named board—and a Trump-named board could reverse it again.

That didn’t stop the TAs and RAs from telling their stories, UAW reported. Besides causing problems with their research and keeping their pay low, the lack of recognition of their union means TAs and RAs can’t work on solving other problems, such as protecting against sexual harassment, obtaining stable health benefits and, for the RAs, better lab conditions.

“I got involved in the union campaign, and voted yes along with 72 percent of my colleagues, because I love my work,” said Justin Steinfeld, an MD/PhD student at a federally funded cancer research lab at the university’s hospital. “Unfortunately, the deteriorating condition of some of our facilities, and the university’s lack of attention to these problems, significantly hinders our ability to do quality work, threatens our own health and safety, and unnecessarily drives up costs.”

Civil engineering PhD candidate Olga Brudastovax and her colleagues organized not only to get better pay, but to get paid, period. “In my first year, Columbia paid me two months late in my first semester and three months late in my second semester. So, to pay rent to university housing I had to resort to borrowing money from my roommate,” she explained.

Nadler supported the TAs and RAs, and reiterated his demand Columbia’s management recognize and bargain with the union. Collective bargaining “will provide an orderly process by which these employees can seek to improve their wages, hours, and working conditions. This will allow both parties to resolve employment disputes in a manner that is consistent with the traditions of academic freedom and the highest-quality teaching, learning, and research,” he added.




Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.