Columbia grad workers will decide on a strike

March 29, 2018

As Columbia University graduate workers vote on strike authorization, what will it take to win against the administration? Davio Cianci and Joe Richard look at the struggle.

THE GRADUATE Workers of Columbia (GWC) have announced an upcoming strike authorization vote of their membership, running April 2 to April 13. If the vote goes favorably, union leaders would be empowered to call a strike at Columbia University in the coming weeks.

There is particular relevance to the timing of a potential strike, given the administration's reliance on the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to disrupt the struggle of graduate workers at one of the wealthiest educational institutions in world.

Administrators have chosen to stonewall and attempt to divide unionizing grad workers at every step.

Leading up to a December 2016 union representation election, the university hired lawyers from Proskauer Rose LLP, a law firm known for busting unions across a vast array of fields, and led a vicious misinformation campaign to stymie union support and convince workers that joining a union was against their best interests.

Despite a vast majority of graduate workers voting to form a union, Columbia challenged the validity of the election and refused to honor the democratic decision of its employees. Even after the NLRB certified the legitimacy of the GWC union, Columbia Provost John Coatsworth released a statement declaring that the university would refuse to bargain, thereby breaking federal labor law.

Graduate workers rally for union recognition at Columbia University
Graduate workers rally for union recognition at Columbia University (GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia | Facebook)

This decision, according to an open letter by Interim Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Dan Driscoll, comes from Columbia's "firm conviction that graduate student assistants are not employees, and that the fundamental and essential purposes of graduate education would be ill served by the intrusion of a third party between student and teacher."

Rather than allowing the normal legal process for union representation and negotiation to play out and respecting the decision of its employees, the administration at Columbia has instead given them a choice: Escalate the struggle or give up and resign themselves to the status quo of precarious living standards and oppressive working conditions.


AFTER YEARS of building a union organizing campaign, the GWC won a union election to represent all research and teaching assistants at Columbia in December 2016, in a lopsided victory that saw heavy turnout.

But that election came after an initial attempt at unionization back in the early 2000s, when the graduate research and teaching assistants at Columbia filed for, and then voted in, their first union election. The ballots were never counted, however--the George W. Bush-appointed NLRB first put a hold on private university graduate unionization cases and eventually ruled that the ballots should be destroyed.

In the most recent challenge, it was the GWC itself that launched the legal case to overturn the Bush-era rulings, opening the door for a wave of recent unionization efforts by graduate workers at private universities in the final years of the Obama presidency.

In addition to an overall employer bias, the NLRB is renowned in Washington and beyond for reflecting partisan political calculations. Legal decisions affecting millions of union members and many millions more unorganized workers sway back and forth depending on which political party occupies the White House.

Since a 2004 Brown University case, the legal status of private university graduate student workers has been an open question, despite the precedent of their counterparts at public universities being considered workers and public employees for at least the past 40 years. (Public-sector labor law is set by the states, whereas most private-sector employees are governed by federal labor law.)

The U.S. Congress and Internal Revenue Service certainly consider graduate student employees to be actual workers when it comes to paying taxes. This clarity from the corporate class was on full display in attacks on graduate employees in some versions of the Trump tax bill last year.

The question underpinning this legal debate is whether or not academic work is actual "work." Columbia declares that it is not and argues that to treat this class of work as such would somehow impede the intended academic relationship between graduate workers and faculty.

Coatsworth claims that Columbia's emphatic opposition stems from an investment in the belief that "the relationship of graduate students to the faculty must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment."

The approach of Driscoll and Coatsworth to graduate workers is as condescending as it is self-serving. Graduate workers have already clarified for themselves that they are workers and deserve union rights. Moreover, grad workers know that their academic work will be much more effectively accomplished with a less precarious standard of living and more control over the conditions of their work.


OTHER ADMINISTRATIONS at elite private schools are closely watching the outcome of this contest, hoping that Columbia will be the seawall against the rising tide of graduate worker unionism that has flowed across the country in the last few years, from Harvard to Stanford.

Along with Yale University and the University of Chicago, Columbia joins the administrations at different universities currently facing unionization that are adopting the same stalling tactic of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

In an ugly lesson in the power politics of elite private universities, these purportedly liberal institutions, which supposedly stand for the values of critical endeavor, enlightenment and reasoned discourse, have found themselves aligned with the reactionary forces of the Trump administration, hoping and praying that Trump's appointees to the NLRB will do their dirty work for them.

On the other side, if the GWC, affiliated with the United Auto Workers Local 2110, can pull off a successful strike and shut down a world-renowned elite university with a multibillion-dollar endowment and win a contract, it would be an enormous victory for higher education workers at other elite private institutions.

A strike is the GWC's best hope to demonstrate that graduate workers are indeed workers and that their labor is essential to CU's functioning. Lectures will go untaught, papers will go ungraded, and research will stall.

If Columbia refuses to listen to their workers, perhaps they will respond to the complaints of their donors and investors. Protests, rallies and other actions to burst the bubble of Columbia's liberal reputation will certainly impact the administration, but a strike alone can force the issue.

As the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign showed recently--though in different circumstances--even minority strikes by unions in higher education can force hostile employers to the negotiating table and win significant gains.


A STRIKE of graduate workers could take different forms. If GWC members opt for a shorter strike with a pre-announced end date, it would help to expose the administration at Columbia, raise awareness about the conditions of graduate workers, and serve as a critical test to consolidate their collective strength.

This approach would likely not be enough to force Columbia into a contract settlement, though. An open-ended strike close to the end of the academic calendar, with all of its required grading and examination work, would be far more impactful and crippling to the normal operations of a university like Columbia.

Additionally, with the inclusion of research assistants in the membership of the GWC (only granted recently with the NLRB's overturning of the Brown decision in 2016), grad workers will have even more leverage through the potential disruption of funded research projects.

Universities, and by extension their corporate partners who sponsor much of the research performed in the academy, rely on underpaid research assistants to do the day-to-day labor of running laboratories and performing experiments. There are few better ways to reveal the true value of graduate work than threatening to disrupt the timeline on sponsored research projects connected to millions of dollars of grant money.

In order to keep up effective picket lines and win a strike by shutting down one campus building after another, the graduate workers would have to continue translate the support of workers who voted "yes" in the union election into active strike involvement.

But also critical to success would be getting the active involvement of a significant layer of undergraduate students on campus. These students are the natural allies of higher education unions because of their regular interactions with academic workers.

Solidarity from supportive faculty members could also be courted and organized, to expand on the number of classes canceled during a strike and amplify the impact of the disruption, as well as support from already unionized graduate workers in the City University of New York system, New York University and The New School.

The GWC would need to enlist the active support and solidarity of the wider New York City labor movement, as well as other unions in higher education. This is a promising opportunity given the relatively high density of organized workers in New York City and the political space occupied by the UAW.


STUDENTS, WORKERS, faculty and even some administrators in higher education across the country have wound up in the Trump administration's crosshairs in a number of ways--ranging from Betsy DeVos' attack on Title IX, the tax "reform" bill's proposed egregious tax on graduate education, and even the chaos and uncertainty in Washington over federal funding and grants.

Furthermore, the university hasn't adequately addressed the issue of protecting DACA recipients, both students and graduate workers; the attacks on Muslim and immigrant workers and students; and the ongoing persistence of workplace sexual harassment, all deliberately heightened during Trump's reign.

Strong unions in higher education, aligned with student-led social movements, could prove an effective way to address these pressing concerns of workers and students across the country.

Supporters of the workers movement should follow the strike authorization vote closely--and contribute in any way they can to a union victory if a strike occurs.

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