A More Perfect Union

A More Perfect Union

Graduate Workers of Columbia and the complexities of unionizing student workers

Published on February 11, 2015

In December, a hundred graduate students marched from Butler Library to Low Library—carrying signs that bore department names and chanting, “Who are we? The union”—to deliver a letter to University President Lee Bollinger that asked Columbia to recognize their union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

 It was a moment of visibility for a movement that started out as a small, grassroots campaign in January 2014. But the Columbia campaign has since garnered coverage in the New Yorker and gained support from the broader campus community. If the graduate student organizers are successful in getting the GWC recognized, Columbia will become the second private university—after NYU—to recognize graduate workers.

Frustrated with unpredictable funding, late paychecks, poor medical coverage, and a lack of transparency in administrative policies and inspired by a successful campaign at NYU that lead to that university’s recognition of graduate student workers, a handful of Columbia students—with the help of the United Automobile Workers, the union that backed the NYU campaign—started a drive to recruit teaching assistants and research assistants. Supporters of unionization knocked on doors to gauge sympathy among their classmates.

“Anyone who wanted to organize went around from department to department, lab to lab, office to office to have one-on-one conversations and find out what people’s experience was like at Columbia and how forming a union would help them,” Seth Prins, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology and a lead organizer on the Columbia unionization campaign, says. “There was a lot of face-to-face and one-on-one conversations, and a few town hall meetings were held, and folks decided this was something a lot of grad students would support.”

The group then initiated a card drive as the first step in seeking recognition of their union. Over the first couple months of the fall semester, 1,700 of the 2,800 total graduate workers signed cards of support for unionization.

Their efforts culminated in the letter sent to Bollinger on Dec. 5 explaining that a majority of graduate students supported the union. But when they did not get a direct response from him, they proceeded by filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Prins says the NLRB has begun the process for determining whether or not graduate workers can form this union. This semester, the students have continued their efforts with plans to host a town hall on the topic on Friday.

Note: Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants in the University of California System have been affiliated with the UAW since the 1990s. The Public Employee Relations Board ruled that Teaching Assistants and Associates, as well as Readers and Tutors, should be viewed as workers.

However, private universities are not covered by the act. Currently, employees at private universities must petition the Labor Relations Board or convince their employer to recognize them, as NYU did last year.

The campaign of the GWC has raised questions of how the university defines students and workers. Graduate students, many of whom shoulder responsibilities commensurate to those of full-time employees, are currently denied workers’ status by the NLRB.

What they have instead is a decentralized system of regulation and compensation, left largely in the hands of individual departments. Not all students find this arrangement unfavorable. This variety of graduate worker experiences has resulted not only in the union and its 1,700 supporters, but also in their opponents.

Now, with the aid of the UAW and hopes for a favorable ruling from a Democratic NLRB, the Columbia union organizers hope to have as much success this spring as their counterparts at NYU did last winter.

Setting an Example

NYU is the sole source of inspiration for Columbia student organizers, but that process has taken over a decade.

The first victory came in 2000, when a Democrat-controlled NLRB decided that NYU students could unionize as employees. NLRB decisions since the ’70s had concluded that students should not be able to unionize, as their relationship to the university was primarily as students, not employees. Following the 2000 decision, graduate students at NYU unionized under the UAW and negotiated a contract with the university in 2002.

Lily Defriend, a Ph.D. candidate at NYU and a member of the NYU union’s bargaining committee, writes in an email that the first contract between the UAW and NYU in 2002 “improved the quality of graduate employee life at NYU dramatically.”

According to Maida Rosenstein, a local organizer for the UAW, the 2002 contract “negotiated a 38% increase in minimum stipends, established fully-paid health care premiums for the first time, and established many other important rights like a fair grievance procedure and workload protections.”

But in 2004, with the NLRB under control of Republicans, the board once again decided to classify graduate students as students instead of workers, effectively ending campaigns for unionization that were underway at Columbia and other institutions. NYU ceased to recognize that TAs were part of a union in 2005, and this remained the case until 2014.

Rosenstein, who helped the NYU union with its campaign, claims that due to the NLRB decision reversal in 2004, graduate workers were “unfairly deprived” of their unionization rights during the Bush Administration.

Even during the non-unionized period from 2005 to 2013, however, Defriend says the progress made from collective bargaining under the union resulted in TAs and research assistants being treated better. “Because of our ongoing organizing over those eight years, NYU continues to pay TAs one of the highest salaries in the US. We believe our current negotiations will lead to important improvements as well,” she writes in an email.

UAW and the NYU union continued to have a relationship through that interregnum. Their sustained organizing campaign paid off in the fall of 2013, when NYU dropped its objection to unionizing. In December, graduate employees voted to unionize by a vote of 620-10—a 98 percent margin. Because NYU recognized the union of its own accord, the union proceeded in spite of the NLRB, which still held to the 2004 decision.

In its 2004 decision, the NLRB argued that unionization might complicate relationships between professors and students, possibly impinging on the academic freedom of members of faculty and administrators by limiting their decision-making power.

Rosenstein rejects this premise, arguing that no such problems have arisen at universities where graduate employees have already unionized.

Similarly, Defriend says that TA and research assistant experience at unionized institutions like the University of California, University of Washington, Rutgers, University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin show that union contracts make it easier, not harder, for graduate students and professors to engage successfully in purely academic relationships. This is because, she says, “the contract unburdens them of having to address the bread-and-butter questions, such as wages and health, that deeply concern graduates but over which professors have no direct influence.”

Rosenstein believes that the 2004 NLRB decision preventing graduate students from unionizing was made on a flawed premise. “The decision, made by a conservative partisan majority, is wrong on the facts and is based on flawed regressive reasoning,” she writes in an email. “It flies in the face of the reality of today’s university workforces in which much of the teaching and research of the university is performed by graduate employees and adjuncts.”

While the NLRB views TAs primarily as students who teach classes as part of their academic program, Defriend claims that TAs at NYU are also university employees who provide critical services to the institution.

“We are students AND employees,” she writes. “Private universities like NYU depend heavily on the teaching and research we do throughout the duration of our studies. As employees, who provide critical teaching and research service to the university, we deserve the same right to collective bargaining that other employees enjoy.”

Rosenstein says that the main benefit of unionization is collective bargaining. “Unionization would give graduate employees the right to collectively bargain over their conditions of employment, including pay, benefits, hours of work, health and safety conditions, etc.,” she writes. “At universities where graduate employees have organized, they have been able to bargain for better pay and benefits, fairer workloads, health and safety protection, protection for international, child care subsidies and address many issues that affect graduate employees at work.”

Currently, the graduate employees at NYU are the first to unionize at a private university, but Rosenstein writes, “Theoretically, there are tens of thousands of graduate employees nationally who could organize under the National Labor Relations Act. And, in fact, there is rising interest on many campuses. As of now, the UAW is the primary union organizing graduate employees at private universities (and many public universities).”

Rosenstein says the UAW’s criteria for joining is “where there is a group of workers committed to working hard to establish a democratic union.”

A Student Becomes the Teacher

It seems that Columbia’s graduate workers are focused on their efforts to bring a recognized union, which would cover graduate instructors—including those who teach Core classes, such as Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities—and undergraduate TAs who might do as much as teach a weekly section or as little as grade multiple choice assignments.

Lit Hum, CC, and University Writing—classes that all undergraduates are required to take that can have a big impact on their academic paths—are regularly taught by graduate instructors. Lit Hum is often the first seminar an undergraduate experiences in college.

Luis Pena-Navarro, a Columbia College senior, says that a graduate instructor of CC made a big effect on his academic career at Columbia. “My CC professor was one of the most approachable people I’ve ever met,” Pena-Navarro says. “He wasn’t complacent with grading, and he had very high standards that I didn’t always meet, but I always understood why.”

“I felt like my CC professor had really immersed himself in the texts to the degree that I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. He had a theater background, so he talked about things I don’t think would have been explored by other professors,” he says.

Though undergraduate TAs would be also be protected by the GWC, the campaign—largely led by graduate students—has not made extensive contact among undergraduates.

Becca Meyer, a Columbia College senior, is a TA in the biology department who was unaware of the unionization campaign. She holds a weekly hour-long optional discussion section and grades assignments that are divided between herself and two other TAs. Meyer writes in an email, “It’s a reasonable amount of work for the amount we are getting paid.”

Ryan Contreras, also a Columbia College senior, had been a TA in the mathematics of finance program for five semesters. He writes in an email, “my job is to take attendance and grade multiple choice questions. no office hours. so my work is minimal, and what I’m paid (3000 a year) is probably overly generous for the amount of time i actually spend working (maybe 10 hours a semester). which is a tiny tiny fraction of the time a math department TA would work.”

He describes the value of a TA in his course as “pretty slim.” Speaking on his experiences with TAs in math classes, he says, “there are a few really good ones from math who cared to be active about helping students. I think that it depends largely on how the professor decides to use the TA.”

The Columbia Movement

Though the TA job description varies across department, graduate students have noted a number of issues across the board.

Prins, who has been a research assistant and is currently a teaching assistant, says there is “a strong organization base in virtually every department at Columbia.”

He sees unionization as the solution to the struggles that continuously arise. “I have heard complaints of people being paid months late and jumping through hoops to get a paycheck. Healthcare costs are sometimes out of control, especially if you have a partner or dependents,” Prins says.

Prins says that after talking with graduate workers across both the medical campus and main campus, he heard a lot of specific issues. According to Prins, the common theme was the desire to negotiate about all these problems. “Collective bargaining power is the first step to being able to address specific issues that people are facing,” he says.

He believes graduate students deserve the right to negotiate with administrators when it comes to their contracts and benefits.

“Graduate student workers provide essential services to the University and should have the right to negotiate the rights under which we provide those services,” he says, echoing Rosenstein and Defriend.

The organizers of the GWC, Prins says, “aim to be a participatory and democratic organization that would survey our members to determine what our priorities were in terms of contract negotiations.” He states that unionization would “give TAs the ability to sit down with the admin and have a voice about paychecks, healthcare premiums, workload, teaching expectations and rent, the only way we can begin to talk about all those things through collective bargaining.”

The UAW already has ties to Columbia, as it represents clerical workers and support staff at Columbia and has some institutional memory after having been involved in an unsuccessful 2007 campaign for graduate workers unionization at Columbia.

Prins, speaking from his experience as a TA for masters students in the School of Public Health, claims that there can be a lot of confusion about who is eligible to be a TA and that many graduate workers are forced to rely on relationships with their professors and peers instead of clear guidelines for their work.

“The number one thing is the ability to have a say in the terms of our labor, having a recognized union, and the right to bargain over a contract,” Andrea Crow, a Ph.D. candidate in the English and comparative literature department, says. Crow is one of the lead organizers on the Columbia campaign for unionization.

“My personal experience is less important than the power that comes from being a union,” she says.

“I’ve seen people have all kinds of issues,” she says. “Problems to do for support for dependents, unreasonable workload, and not getting paid on time, for example.” She argues that unionization would allow for a democratic process to address any issue that might arise.

Another supporter of the unionization campaign, Olga Brudastova is a Ph.D. candidate in civil engineering and engineering mechanics. She does not need to TA, as she is on a presidential fellowship.

Brudastova got involved in the GWC through the departmental visits made by others already involved in the campaign. “It sounded interesting because it sounded promising as well,” she said.

She believes that unionization concerns all graduate students and that graduate students lack guidelines in their roles as research assistants and TAs. “It’s not only about TAs,” Brudastova says. “I think it’s just useful for all graduate experience because we don’t have any book of rules or anything. There is nothing of that kind, or a contract, and there are many situations where we don’t know for sure what we can do what we cannot do.”

She also says that it is unclear “who can we talk to about our concerns or questions,” because they are determined on a case-by-case basis depending on administrators in each department and the work that the TAs and research assistants are doing.

Echoing Prins, Crow cites the results of the card drives as evidence of strong support for unionization: “Our supporters come from literally every department on campus.”

Pushback

Despite organizers’ claims of widespread support among graduate students, the University Senate and the Graduate Student Advisory Council have decided to remain neutral on the issue.

Alex Beecher, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department and a former TA, is a University Senator, but he spoke to me in his capacity as a student. “From the perspective of my experience as TA, I’m not sure how joining a union would affect my classroom experience,” he says.

Beecher was a TA in the chemistry department his first year. His job involved attending lectures and leading weekly three hour-long recitation sections in which he taught between 16 and 20 students.

Beecher says he had a good relationship with the professor who taught the class, and thus had a good experience as a teaching assistant. He does not see how being part of a union would have improved his experience. “I think that with my relationship with the professor I’m teaching for, I don’t know that that would change that much,” he says.

He sees the unionization effort as “mainly linked with the benefits and salary size,” which he does not think would change substantially in his case.

For Zachariah Norman, another Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department, unionization is a bigger solution than the problem requires. He believes that the unionization effort at Columbia is “naive and entitled,” claiming that it would make graduate students’ lives “measurably worse and deliver few benefits.”

“We full time PhD. students are, in essence, highly compensated professionals,” he writes in an email. “We make a minimum of 22k plus a huge benefits package in the form of compensated tuition for a terminal degree from an Ivy league institution.”

While unionization would substantially affect TA salary size, it would also allow for collective bargaining and give TAs the power to standardize the amount and types of work they do. They would also be able to set expectations across departments, whereas expectations of TAs currently vary between departments and professors.

This last point, the differing standards for TA responsibilities and working conditions, constitutes not only a main rallying point for unionization supporters, but also a prominent point of contention among graduate student workers themselves. Many TAs and research assistants want to bargain for better treatment, but others say they are content with the situations they have. These divisions often fall along departmental lines.

Beecher acknowledges that TAs in science departments can be treated better than their languages and humanities counterparts. “I have a very mixed view on the subject,” he says. “I should note that as a scientist, we get the better end of the deal as far as graduate students go.”

“On average, we get higher stipends and many benefits. It’s a generous package,” Beecher says. “As for other departments, I don’t think they get as much. Unionization would benefit those students.”

Norman, too, recognizes that his position as a chemistry TA means he has had a different experience from TAs in other departments. “Many of us, particularly in the natural sciences, already make considerably more than the minimum stipend from our own departments,” he writes. “In Chemistry we make over 30k while still in school. and that is not including outside grants that we bring in.”

Norman also brings up the inconsistencies in pay between graduate students in different departments. He claimed that while collective bargaining could raise the salary base rate for TAs, it would do nothing for TAs whose pay already exceeds the base rate.

Norman acknowledges that there are still problems defining the TA role. Their position as something between a student and an employee creates uncertainty about what they could qualify for.

“It’s unclear if we qualify for workers comp or if we qualify for pre-tax health insurance from Columbia,” he writes. “We also face the bureaucratic morass that is Columbia, with competing fiefdoms and a total lack of clarity about who to talk to in order to resolve administrative problems. To me this is the largest problem facing Columbia, and is the root of our problems as graduate students.”

Though Norman agrees with issues brought up by unionization campaigners, he does not believe that graduate student unionization will significantly improve the situation. He argues that instead of clarifying the graduate worker situation and simplifying the bureaucracy, the union will “add one more layer of incompetence.”

“Our union representatives will be graduate students who we will need to coordinate with to get things done. One more busy person between me and administration is not a positive development,” Norman writes. “If Chemistry offers a raise, History students will get to vote on whether we get it.”

Beecher expressed concerns about whether the UAW is the right organization to join. “On the other hand I am a little bit worried about whether graduate students’ interests are fully aligned with the UAW,” he says. “Although they represent most of the grad students who are unionized in the country I would question the fit. … Although TAs are wearing worker hats, they are also wearing student hats.”

Prins responds to fears about uneven salary agreements by citing TA unionization experience at NYU. “In NYU’s first contract, grad workers voted for a 38 percent increase in minimum stipends, and even those already getting paid the most saw a raise,” he says. “At Columbia, where an enormous amount of support and organizing energy for GWC comes from the sciences at Morningside, CUMC, and Lamont, if grad workers decide democratically that stipends are one of our contract priorities, we’d be quite foolish to support or ratify a contract that harms any of our colleagues.”

Prins expressed frustration with his negotiations with the administration. “Columbia admins have decided not to communicate with us directly,” he says. “They have hired one of most expensive lawyers in the country from Proskauer and Rose [the law firm Proskauer Rose] and they are trying to get our petition thrown out,” he says. Proskauer Rose also worked for Columbia in its 2004 effort to stop TA unionization.

Like Prins, Crow has also been frustrated by the administration’s response to the campaign. “The administration has not spoken to us at all. Their tactics have been to try and delay our NLRB hearing. You would think that this was a simple question of democratic process that no one would want to impede—you’d think that they would at least want to address us directly,” she says.

In a comment to Capital New York on Jan. 16, Bollinger said that he does not think it is necessary for graduate students to have unionization. He said, “I really think of our graduate students as students, not as employees. And that has a large meaning to it. I think we feel a responsibility for students beyond what it means to be an employee. So that’s been my position.”

“I think universities are special places in that sense of having a relationship with students that is different from the employer-employee relationship, and it’s built around this scholarly temperament that I talked about [during the panel],” Bollinger said.

Bollinger did not wish to comment further for this article, stating, “We are waiting for a decision on the order to show cause and have no comment.”

Crow disagreed with Bollinger’s statements about the role of graduate student workers. “He claims that we were students, not workers, and to unionize would interfere with scholarly temperament. Every university considers scholars to be workers,” she says. “Who says that one person should make that decision, considering that the majority of graduate workers feel differently?”

Brudastova was also disappointed with President Bollinger’s statements on the unionization campaign. “The position that we’ll share is disappointment with his expression of his position, mostly because our decision of moving forward with the card drive, … it was made after talking to thousands of grad students. Unionization was the choice of the majority,” she says.

“We don’t see any democracy in not respecting our choice.”

*  *  *

The story of the campaign for graduate student worker unionization at Columbia is far from over. Representatives of the union went before the NLRB this week to seek collective bargaining rights on behalf of graduate student workers.

The hearings are still ongoing, but if the board certifies the GWC, Columbia will be forced to recognize it. It’s for these hearings that the University hired the law firm of Proskauer Rose.

The fight over unionization at Columbia features defenders like Rosenstein, who writes, “All workers, including graduate employees, should have the democratic right to organize and collectively bargain over their terms and conditions of employment.” They cast collective bargaining for teaching and research assistants as an integral part of a democracy.

On the other side, administrators and students alike argue that graduate students are students, not employees. Some students, like Zachariah Norman, fear that the union will subordinate them to a collective interest that may actually be in opposition to their own.

There is truth to each of these viewpoints. But what is clear is that the responsibilities and expectations of TAs and research assistants do vary between departments. Often, TAs are unsure of the expectations for their roles and face issues dealing with late paychecks, poor dependent support, and high workload. At the same time, graduate workers play an essential role in the Columbia undergraduate education, such as teaching the Core Curriculum and having a significant impact on the undergraduate academic experience. The burdens of these various roles have compelled 1,700 of 2,800 graduate workers to vote for unionization.

Unionization is one possible solution to these problems. It would let TAs and research assistants negotiate problems having to do with their pay, benefits, and work environment.

“The right to unionize is a hallmark of a democratic society,” Rosenstein writes. “The unions at NYU have made the university a better, fairer workplace. Unions make universities more democratic and open institutions by allowing university workers to speak about and have meaningful input into their working conditions without fear of reprisal.”

Yasemin Akcaguner contributed reporting.

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