Columbia grad students’ unionization case heads for court
GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia

NEW YORK—The long-running effort by teaching assistants and graduate assistants at Columbia University to unionize with the Auto Workers is headed for the courts, thanks to the university’s administration. And the TAs and RAs themselves are headed for the streets, with a mass protest in front of the university’s iconic Low Library at noon on Feb. 1.

That’s because the university management announced two days before it would refuse to bargain with Auto Workers Local 2110, which the TAs and RAs overwhelmingly voted for months before – and that it would sue in federal court to overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s certification of the union.

The Columbia unionization drive is important, not just for the underpaid, overworked TAs and RAs, who shoulder the bulk of the course-teaching load despite low pay, lack of tenure and few benefits.

It’s also important for unions seeking to organize TAs and RAs at private universities nationally. The NLRB’s 3-person Democratic majority OKd such organizing drives in mid-2016, ruling the grad student TAs and RAs are “employees” organizable under labor law, not “students” unprotected by it.

In the last eight years, UAW alone has organized 20,000 TAs and RAs nationwide, and other unions, including the Teachers, have organized thousands more.

Predictably, Columbia’s decision outraged the TAs and RAs, who had voted for the union, 1,602-623, despite the university management’s long and often nasty anti-union campaign. One objective of Columbia and other universities: To stall until the GOP again achieved an NLRB majority – which could reverse the prior ruling. The board is now tied 2-2, though another GOPer was nominated.

GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia

“This is a new low for Columbia,” civil engineering RA Olga Brudastova told the union. “More than a year after we voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionization, Columbia revives its old excuses and tries to gloss over the fact that they are refusing to respect the law that has now certified our union.”

“Their communication also demonstrates how tone-deaf they are to what is going on around this campus – more than 2,000 of us just signed another petition demanding bargaining because we want to negotiate stronger recourse on sexual misconduct, among other things,” Brudastova said.

“In response, they refuse to bargain and announce that they will enhance stipends and benefits.  The fact they are this out of touch with the real problems we’re facing in our workplaces is one of the main reasons we will not go away until they agree to a fair contract.”

“Columbia’s refusal to bargain with their graduate workers is outrageous. Refusing to bargain at this point is flouting the law of the land and shows total and continued disrespect for the democratic will of these workers,” said UAW regional director Julie Kushner. “Their continued delay tactics will not make this go away.  These workers have made their choice clear over and over and will continue to do so, and the UAW will stand with these workers until they achieve the justice they deserve.”

“Columbia’s position isolates them in New York City, where both NYU and the New School have respected democratic votes on unionization and bargain with their graduate workers,” Local 2110 and UAW District 9A said.

Columbia Provost John Coatsworth, the university’s point man in its anti-union campaign, admitted in a campus-wide email the institution’s decision to go to court to stop the union will produce “the likelihood for disappointment and dispute in our community.”

Columbia, he added, won’t bargain “until the legal process has run its course. We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).