Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Inside the Best Union in the Best University in the Best City in the World. by Virginia Fu and Lena Rubin
In late August of this year, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that student assistants at private universities are employees and therefore guaranteed the right to unionize under federal labor law. The day after the ruling, Columbia’s Provost, John H. Coatsworth, sent an email to the University community announcing the NLRB’s decision and affirming Columbia’s stance over the past decade: that graduate students are not, in fact, employees, and that unionization might result in a litany of “drawbacks.”
“I am concerned,” Coatsworth wrote, noting that he was also speaking for many faculty and administrators, “about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students.”
In an interview that took place this October, deep in the bowels of Engineering Terrace, SEAS Dean Mary Boyce echoed these views. Boyce said she was “stunned” to hear that graduate students at Columbia were attempting to unionize. Especially worrying to Boyce was the possibility that the mentoring relationship between students and faculty, which she describes as a unique, family-like relationship, may be endangered.
Illustration by Anna Kaplan
“We ask, who’s your academic mother or father, who’s your academic grandfather or grandmother? There’s this sense that there’s this academic tree that you are a part of, that is part of who you are going forward,” Boyce explained. “I just don’t understand how you can regulate and make more transactional something that is a very individualized experience, that is a student learning to become a scholar.”
“So my question is—and I think this is a pretty deep question—what does the United Auto
Workers have to do with that experience?”
“Maybe some stuff’s different now.”
Like many people who try to form unions, graduate workers at Columbia have not the found the process easy.
Following an NLRB ruling that gave NYU students the right to unionize, Columbia graduate students began their first unionization effort in 2000. Students gathered cards and petitioned the NLRB. Administrators fought back hard against the union, prompting local politicians Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to pen a letter urging administrative neutrality. A secret ballot election to recognize the union was held, but votes were impounded following a Columbia appeal. In 2005, after a series of strikes, the ballots were
destroyed as a result of an NLRB ruling that reversed its earlier position.
Today, Columbia’s would-be graduate union (somewhat unimaginatively dubbed Graduate Workers of Columbia or GWC) is again seeking to join UAW Local 2110, which also represents Barnard’s contingent faculty and NYU’s graduate workers. In an interview this September, the Local’s president, Maida Rosenstein, drew parallels between the current effort and the first organizing campaign she participated in as a clerical worker in the Columbia History department.
“First, they actually delayed through litigating the unit for many years. We started organizing before 1980 and we didn’t get union recognition until 1985. Delay, delay, delay. Then when we had the election itself, the university ran an anti-union campaign,” Rosenstein recalls.
As of the writing of this article, a date for the vote has not been set. If the majority of the 3,000 Ph.D, Master’s and undergraduate teaching and research assistants included in the bargaining unit vote yes, and Harvard doesn’t beat us to it, Columbia will be the second private university in the country to recognize their graduate worker union.
“He’s, you know, the Provost.”
Months before last August’s NLRB ruling, guessing that the Obama-appointed board’s sympathies might run against them, administrators met with department chairs to discuss the legal ramifications of the anticipated decision.
“Once a vote has been scheduled, faculty become managers in the legal sense,” explained English department chair Sarah Cole, “In any labor union situation there are a lot of things that are illegal [for managers] to do, such as intimidating or surveilling students.” Cole reached out to the Provost office to ask if anyone could speak to the “labor-leaning and good natured” faculty of the English department. “I just wanted to make sure they understood what they can and cannot say.”
Cole was “pleasantly surprised” when the Provost himself responded to her request for a presentation, which she saw as “a sign of how serious the administration is taking this.” Prompted by a faculty member, she also invited pro-union students to make their own presentation—not English students since they would be too “close.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, English faculty had “labor-leaning” things to say about the Provost’s presentation, which followed closely the material available on Columbia’s Provost-sponsored unionization website. To Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities, the Provost’s presentation seemed like a “propaganda meeting, rather than an informational meeting,” and confirmed his sense that “a university like ours… is effectively a corporate university, technically nonprofit but behaving like a profit-making corporation where labor questions are concerned. They would, in other words, adopt a pose of as much neutrality as possible while fighting the union tooth and nail as they have fought in the courts up to now.”
Robbins recalls that when the Provost arrived early, walking in on the graduate students making their presentation. “[Coatsworth] walked out and our Chair literally ran out after him [since] he’s, you know, the Provost.”
Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities, believes that the Provost presented “the worst case scenario.” Claims that a union would interfere with academic issues, she said, should be treated with “skepticism,” since in student contracts such things are “carefully kept out of the oversight of the union.”
While the majority of the graduate student unions exist at public universities, where state laws typically prohibit the intrusion of unions into academic affairs, Howard imagines such concerns would only become a problem if “we don’t do what other universities have done.”
“I think the administration should not be making the worst case scenario. That seems to me foolish.”
Cole, however, offered a different impression of the presentation. “It wasn’t alarmist, [the Provost] was not taking an alarmist tone. The first thing he says is it’s not going to be the end of the world as we know it if graduate students unionize. We’ll work with it but here are the reasons we feel they shouldn’t.”
“You Are Us and We Are You.”
To the question of what role faculty should play in the unionization campaign, GWC has a firm answer: none. According to the GWC-UAW website, “[Faculty] should refrain from making any comments on unionization, as whatever they say may influence a graduate worker’s opinion since they are our supervisors.”
Howard iterated her support for this policy. “I have the very strong opinion that we should stay out of this, because of the power relations we have with graduate students,” Howard said.
“We teach them, we mentor them, we help them get jobs, and we cannot be telling them whether or not they should vote for a union.”
A student from the Latin American and Iberian Cultures department, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees that the policy makes sense. “Our relationships with our advisors are not going to change at all. The issue is…between the administration and the students.”
While administration sets stipends and benefits in the humanities, in the sciences and engineering student research assistants are often supported by grants secured by faculty members. EGSC President and Biomedical Engineering student Emily Moore thinks it’s plausible that the ruling may in these cases make relationships between RAs and PIs more transactional.
“When PIs start viewing students as employees, they start keeping tabs on how many hours a week they’re coming, how many vacations they’re taking. [They start thinking] is the work they’re producing justifying the money I’m pulling out of this grant?”
Even in the humanities, the ruling has prompted some faculty to reconsider their relationship with graduate students. Karen Benezra, a professor in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures department, notes that she has become more conscious of the kind of work she’s asked students to do, such as “translations, where students are not paid and the symbolic payback on their CVs might not be really great.”
Other faculty have gone further and pushed back against their designation as “managers.” At an October town hall for SEAS students and faculty, a Mechanical Engineering professor argued to the crowd, “We are not employers, and you are not employees. You are us and we are you. Our careers depend on how you’re doing so we’re going to make sure you’re satisfied.”
To Benezra and many others, however, the argument that unionization will fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between faculty and students, rather than simply recognize a previously neglected facet of that relationship, rings false. Students who are remunerated for their teaching and research might have noticed that they already sustain an economic relationship with the University. That the University has apparently not noticed this might conceivably have been among the considerations that compelled the formation of its graduate student union.
Carlos Alonso, the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who replied to our interview request with an email consisting of the words “Full Smirk.” in slightly larger than usual font (he later clarified this email was meant for “a friend, in response to another message”), expressed the view that unionization is “not necessary.”
Alonso is currently working on a book on the commodification of culture, which has traditionally been viewed as existing above the requirements of the market, and its implications for Latin American cultural discourse. Alonso believes that competitive pressures with peer institutions constitute a “built-in mechanism” for making sure that graduate stipends and benefits “are always being enhanced.”
“The kinds of issues the union would bargain for are things that we already do,” Alonso explained.
However, graduate organizers believe that many of the benefits “enhanced” in recent years are a result of unionization, or at least the threat of it. They point out that the University Senate has it on record that graduate stipends were increased specifically to be competitive with NYU after they recognized their graduate union in 2000. (Spectator reported last year that NYU’s current contract ensures significantly better health and childcare benefits, and 38 percent higher average stipends for graduate TAs.)
“I’m a sixth year, and I have never seen that kind of email,” said Jason Resnikoff, a graduate organizer and Ph.D student in History, referring to a university-wide email the Provost sent in July, promising a 3.7 percent increase in stipends.
“We know that GSAC [the Graduate Student Advisory Council] has been asking for years for an increase in child care subsidies and parental leave,” said Resnikoff. “It was only when GSAC combined with [GWC-UAW] that we got a 100 percent increase in child care subsidies and four more weeks in parental leave.”
Likewise, Resnikoff believes that the University wouldn’t be “scrambling” to replace their dental insurance if GWC weren’t “using this as a perfect of example of why we need a union.” (In his presentation to the English faculty, the Provost stated that, when students’ dental insurance was cancelled by Columbia’s health care provider, the University immediately found a replacement. Resnikoff, who helped give the pro-union presentation, argues that free cleanings at the Dental School and a discount on emergency care do not constitute a dental plan.)
At a town hall meeting in early October, Dean Alonso and Vice Provost and Senior Vice Dean of SEAS Soulaymane Kachani reiterated the view that “market dynamics,” in addition to their “commitment to bringing the best students” to campus “explain our benefits and stipend [increases].”
“We have worked tirelessly to enhance those benefits and we have done it long before any union was here on campus. We have a very selfish reason to do this, which is that we want to create the highest rated doctoral program. We want to attract the best and brightest students and we cannot do this if our students are not very happy with their experience… So we are all in it for the same purpose and our incentives are aligned,” explained Kachani.
Forming a union in such a collegial atmosphere, Alonso warned, would be akin to adopting a strategy of “nuclear deterrence.” “It’s a weapon the union gives you, which is that you can step away from the table and refuse to continue talking, and you can use the economic weapon of the strike.”
“What you need to ask yourself is whether you need that kind of leverage or whether using that leverage is unequivocally going to be to your benefit.”
While no graduate student we talked to professed a fear of nuclear annihilation, Mel Abler, a graduate organizer and Ph.D student in Applied Physics researching nuclear physics, sees unionization as an antidote to the sense of precarity many graduate students face.
“To me a lot of this is preventative. It just takes a lot of what we have and says, this stays.”
Abler, who is from Wisconsin, saw her family’s income “crushed” in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 curtailing of public sector unions. Since then, she has believed that “your work conditions should be enshrined in a legally enforceable way.”
“This is not a poor institution,” adds Resnikoff, the History student, “We have a nine billion dollar endowment. We’re not trying to bankrupt the place where we work, we want to have a meaningful say in the option to have dental care. I’m a thirty year old man.”
As Resnikoff sees it, “The university does not work without us, and I think that gives us a right to have some say over not only our own conditions but the general structure of how the school should run.”
The people currently making the decisions, Abler notes, likely haven’t been in her position for several decades. “It’s really easy to forget some of the worse parts.”
“And,” adds Abler, “Maybe some stuff’s different now.”
When asked why the University was fighting against the union, most graduate organizers again agreed that the answer has to do with “power.”
“They have the power right now. If we have a union we are going to be in charge of that power. They don’t want that. They will have to sit at another seat at the table,” said the student from the Latin American and Iberian Cultures Department.
Misleading statements such as those on the “extensively researched” Provost website concerning strike fines fuel the impression that Columbia is waging a union-busting campaign. Officially though, University officials are just expressing their concerns; they argue that their statements are perceived as “union-busting,” because their silence on the matter until now has left “a void in terms of the arguments against.”
Yet it would be difficult not to notice that this University and its various schools, as well as its well-endowed peer institutions with whom a certain amicus brief was jointly filed last last year, might have a few interests, financial or ideological, that the crushing of a fledgling graduate union might serve.
The claim that graduate unions, which exist at more than 60 universities across the country, represent an intrusion of economic relations into a hallowed and idyllic academic sphere is, at best, out of touch. At worst, these claims betray a cynical disregard for student working conditions, an issue that, if taken seriously, might conceivably further the University’s basic mission of research and teaching. “Competitive pressures” don’t seem to be doing the job and faculty and administrators find themselves both far removed from their time as graduate students and beholden to a complex array of interests.
When we talked to Sarah Cole, the English department chair, she testified to “the larger conditions of being a graduate student, which is one of vulnerability, being at the mercy of the administration and the academic job market, living on extremely low stipends.”
Still, Cole recalls that when she walked out on strike at Berkeley in the 1990s, holding a UAW sign, she was “ambivalent.”
“That was sort of the thing to do,” she remembers.
Additional reporting was contributed by Emily Mack.