Labor battles at Columbia University

December 5, 2016

Lena Rubin reports on recent struggles by graduate employees and other workers at Columbia and Barnard Colleges at Columbia University.

FACULTY, INSTRUCTORS and graduate employees at Columbia College and Barnard College, two of the four undergraduate colleges of Columbia University in New York City, are preparing for a fight for union representation and better conditions on the job.

The Barnard Contingent Faculty (BCF-UAW), a union of non-tenure track faculty, is currently holding a strike authorization vote. The voting period will continue into the first week of December. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has authorized a union vote for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University (GWC-UAW), consisting of student workers who conduct research and do other work for the university. This vote will take place December 7 and 8.

Workers at both Barnard and Columbia have a rich history of unionization efforts. The news of the BCF strike vote comes shortly after students and faculty celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Barnard clerical workers' strike. Support staff including adjunct faculty and clerical workers struck twice between winter 1995 and spring 1996, protesting a proposed union contract that would have forced them to pay for the health care premiums on the plans.

Members of the contingent faculty union
Members of the contingent faculty union (Barnard Contingent Faculty-UAW Local 2110)

At Columbia College, graduate student unionization efforts have been going strong since the beginning of this year. This isn't the first time that graduate students at Columbia have attempted to unionize--after a 2000 NLRB ruling that gave New York University students the right to unionize, Columbia mounted its own campaign.

The ballots cast in this vote, amid considerate administrative opposition, were discarded before the graduate workers could unionize once the NLRB reversed its position in 2005. But in August 2016, the NLRB ruled that student assistants at private universities are employees and therefore guaranteed the right to unionize under federal labor law.

JUST AS in 2000, administrators at both undergraduate schools have fiercely opposed unionization efforts. Shortly after the August NLRB ruling, Columbia Provost John H. Coatsworth sent an e-mail to the university stating that grad students are not, in fact, employees, and that unionization might result in "drawbacks."

"I am concerned," Coatsworth wrote, "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."

Furthermore, information listed on the provost's website, presented in a misleadingly "objective" manner, is vehemently anti-union. Students are led to believe that unions would wipe out all traces of individual liberty within the institution, because "the union speaks and acts for all students in the bargaining unit." Propaganda such as this has been disseminated throughout the Ivy League in response to questions of unionization.

In December 2015, before the NLRB ruling obliged Columbia to recognize GWC's right to unionization, a hundred grad students from Columbia marched across campus to President Lee Bollinger's office in Low Library, intending to deliver a letter of protest. In the letter, they urged the administration to "refrain from further legal or other actions that would delay graduate employees' right to choose collective bargaining."

The delegation was locked out of Low Library. Vice President of Public Safety James McShane, who reportedly said he would "ensure the letter got delivered," purposefully blocked the side doors, silencing student voices and impeding their movement in public space. All of this at a university whose president is a noted legal scholar on the First Amendment and Free Speech.

In May 2016, the BCF-UAW Local 2110, along with undergraduate activists from the student group Student Worker Solidarity, protested for a living wage as well as better benefits and health care outside of the annual Barnard fundraising gala at none other than the Plaza Hotel. Barnard President Debora Spar, who attended the gala, didn't address the protesters. However, President Bollinger's car was successfully blocked from exiting the driveway of the hotel.

BARNARD AND Columbia have enlisted Jackson Lewis and Proskauer Rose, respectively, two law firms with a history of union-busting, in order to repress graduate student organizing and to spread anti-union information throughout the student body.

As Columbia English professor Bruce Robbins pointed out in a recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia is joining the ranks of corporations like Volkswagen, IBM and Walmart, all of whom have extended massive amounts of money into hiring law firms in order to break up unionization efforts.

Ph.D. student Jason Reznikoff, an organizing member of the GWC-UAW, says that while the university presents itself as a beneficent entity which has the best interests of the grad students in mind, the majority of victories for grad students' qualities of life have been won through explicit pressure from students, not from the free will of administrators.

He cites a recent 100 percent increase in child-care subsidies and four-week increase in parental leave as an example. The Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSC) has been "asking for years for an increase in subsidies and parental leave...but it was only when [GSAC] combined with GWC-UAW" that the reforms were made. "This," says Reznikoff, "is a perfect example of why we need a union."

Mel Abler, a Ph.D candidate in applied physics and also an organizer for the GWC union, comes from Wisconsin, and her family's income saw a sharp decrease in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker's curtailing of public-sector unions' bargaining rights. Unionization, she states, help ensure that "your work conditions be enshrined in a legally enforceable way."

Meanwhile, Barnard's Office of the Provost sent an e-mail to the student body on November 13 with a report about the upcoming strike vote. The provost insisted, "We are working diligently to reach agreement without a strike," and furthermore that "authorizing a strike needlessly adds to the tension many of us feel today."

This last comment implies that, in the wake of Trump's election, the struggles of faculty for affordable health care and better benefits should for some reason be pushed to the side.

Debora Spar herself, however, has certainly added to the "tension" the administration reports, recently announcing her resignation and giving exactly the required 90 days notice.

Spar will move to a position as CEO of prestigious performing arts institution Lincoln Center. Perhaps it's a coincidence that Spar announced she would evacuate her position just days after the BCF-UAW strike was announced--one cannot be sure.

Struggles for organized labor are more important now than ever, with Trump becoming president and university administrators who clearly have the interests of profit in mind above the welfare of students.

Columbia University has a $9 billion endowment, and there's no reason why more money cannot be put toward increasing the quality of life and job security for students who make this university run. We cannot look to the benevolence of administrators or college presidents in order to grant top-down reforms for graduate students and non-tenure faculty.

It's crucial to support contingent faculty and graduate workers at Columbia, and to move toward unionization at other private universities following the NLRB ruling. We must ensure job security and a better quality of life for the people who provide crucial labor to universities both private and public, despite the bitter administrative opposition that we will inevitably face. Better job security for faculty means better education for all.

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