Columbia teaching/research assistants will vote to join union

Stephon Johnson | 11/10/2016, 10:39 a.m.
Next month, research and teaching assistants at Columbia and Harvard universities will vote for their right to unionize.
Columbia University's Butler Library Contributed

Next month, research and teaching assistants at Columbia and Harvard universities will vote for their right to unionize.

On Dec. 7 and 8, close to 7,000 research and teaching assistants at the Ivy League institutions will vote on union representation with United Automobile Workers. Currently, the UAW represents more than 35,000 graduate workers at 45 campuses, which is more than any other union in America.

“This is a historic moment for the future of academic work in the Ivy League,” said Aaron Bekemeyer, a Ph.D. student and teaching fellow in the History Department at Harvard, in a statement. “Nearly 7,000 of us will vote in the next six weeks on having a real voice at our universities.”

The AmNews spoke with Olga Brudastova, a Ph.D. student who worked as a teaching and research assistant in the Civil Engineering Department.

“I got involved in this about two and a half years ago,” Brudastova said. “I went to town halls. I went to meetings. I organized without my own department. I was frustrated by the administration ignoring us. Unions can create that power and give us a chance with a two-sides conversation.”

Brudastova said that the administration has misrepresented their organization and the union for graduate workers. “Their main argument is that it will hurt our relationship with students and the university,” she said. “But there hasn’t been any evidence with the 60-plus universities that have [organized research and teaching assistants].”

In August, the National Labor Relations Board voted 3-1 in favor of student assistants who work at private colleges and universities being statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

“The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014,” read the NLRB statement. “The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483), saying it ‘deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.’”

Now the research and teaching assistants look to follow suit.

“We’re proud to support graduate workers at Columbia, Harvard and universities across the country who are working to make their universities the best they can be for students and faculty,” said Julie Kushner, the director of UAW Region 9A, in a statement. “When research and teaching assistants bargain collectively, they win real improvements that benefit their entire community—fair pay, job security, health care and grievance procedures that protect against harassment on the job.”

“We did not expect NLRB to move so quickly but we are delighted to see it,” said Brudastova. “Now, we’re just pushing to have the union established and recognized. We’re still having more conversations and public events in the three weeks before the vote. Our organizing strategy doesn’t really change.”

Brudastova alerted the AmNews to a webpage created by Columbia the days after the NLRB’s decision (unionization.provost.columbia.edu) that implores individuals to “be informed” about the consequences for “those interested in the election and its outcome.” It has the dates and locations of where the NLRB will set up and administer polling places around campus.

The AmNews called the university for comment and obtained a statement from the university’s provost, John Coatsworth.

“The upcoming election scheduled by the NLRB will provide Columbia students serving as teaching and research assistants the chance to weigh the value of membership in the United Auto Workers,” the statement read. “True to the free speech values of the university, between now and Dec. 7-8, we look forward to a thoughtful, substantive discussion about the impact of having the union represent students in this essential part of their academic training and educational experience.  We hope all eligible students will inform themselves on the issues, consider the costs of representation by the UAW, along with the promised benefits—and then get out and vote.”

A university representative also sent a letter, from August, that Coatsworh sent to the university community lamenting the NLRB reversing a position it held for more than a decade.

“Columbia and many of our peer universities have challenged this position,” read the letter. “Nearly all of the students at Columbia affected by this decision are graduate students. We believe that the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace. Being a graduate student can take many years of intense research, teaching and study.

“But unlike university employees, graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers.”