Grad Students Strike For Basic Rights

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“The reason that they are so mad about us having a union doesn’t ultimately have that much to do with not wanting to pay us more. Partly because you see how much money they’re spending on union busting lawyers….they could easily meet our financial demands. It’s about them not wanting there to be another form of power within the university that isn’t at the whim of the administration.”

~ Carina Schorske

By Ruby Samuels
On Tuesday, around midday, graduate students marched up and down the college walk chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” After years of trying to get Columbia University to bargain with them, the TAs and RAs of Columbia, represented by the United Auto Workers union (GWC-UAW Local 2110), have gone on strike from April 24th to April 30th. Their demands are diverse, including better healthcare, childcare and sexual harassment policies. But for now, they just want their employers to come to table.

The university’s stated reason for not bargaining with the union is:

“The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on the issue of whether teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to unionize, depending on which political party controlled the Board.

We seek review by the federal courts to decide this still-unsettled question without regard to shifting political winds. Instead of striking, the GWC-UAW could instead take the action with the NLRB that is needed to bring this issue to the courts.”

It is true that the NLRB has been back and forth about whether or not a teaching assistant counts as a statutory worker. In 2004, the NLRB ruled in Brown University that teaching assistants are students rather than legally protected workers. However, in a 2016 case regarding Columbia University, the NLRB ruled that, “student assistants who perform work at the direction of their university for which they are compensated are statutory employees,” because “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act [National Labor Relations Act] does not reach.” In other words, their status as students does not exclude them from being legally protected as workers.

The university’s suggestion that the union take their case to the federal court system before bargaining with their employer is ill advised. The union website’s FAQ page claims that the university’s refusal to bargain with them is unlawful. This is true. It is illegal to force an employer to recognize a union, and employers are not legally required to bargain with a union until it is recognized. However, if an employer does not voluntarily recognize the union, a union representative from the parent company can be elected for the workers through a secret ballot held by the NLRB. After such an election, the NLRB states:

“a union that receives a majority of the votes cast is certified as the employees’ bargaining representative and is entitled to be recognized by the employer as the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees in the unit. Failure to bargain with the union at this point is an unfair labor practice.”

Because the TAs and RAs of Columbia University voted overwhelmingly (1602- 623) in 2016 in favor of GWC-UAW as their union, the university is engaging in “unfair labor practice” by refusing to recognize and bargain with them.

Although students at Columbia University and several other institutions have tried to bargain with their employers through a union, the only private university to succeed is NYU. In 2001, NYU graduate students were the first to unionize, and they won increases in spidends and reductions in out-of-pocket healthcare costs. When the Brown University case prevented students from being able to unionize as workers, NYU did not renew the workers’ contracts, but in 2013, a unionization campaign succeeded. Those graduate students are now represented by the United Auto Workers, the same union that represents Columbia students. Again, in 2015, the students rallied on campus and succeeded in securing more benefits for the student workers of the union. Perhaps NYU sheds some hope for the Columbia students who will be rallying for the rest of this week.

A lot of the undergraduates who I’ve heard commenting on this week’s strike have expressed confusion over why graduate students need rights. There is a misconception that graduate students are less than statutory employees because they are students. To clear up some of that confusion, I interviewed a TA who has taught me, an articulate graduate student named Carina Schorske. Below is our conversation, during the first day of the strike.

What are some of your demands?
First and foremost, we demand that the Columbia administration recognize our union and sit down to bargain with us immediately. We want our work as teachers, researchers, and lab workers, to be recognized as work–just because we love what we do does not mean we can live on love alone.

It’s been sixteen months of delay tactics since our historic and overwhelming vote in favor of a union, and still Columbia hopes the NLRB’s ruling in our favor will be overturned by a Trump-appointed NLRB. It’s a cynical gamble for a university that markets itself as a community that protects and produces democracy and justice. Now we know that’s never been the real, whole history of how Columbia operates–as a real estate developer and colonial force in Harlem, as an exploitative employer, as a corporate investor. But the hypocrisy is still lip-smacking.

The most basic thing that we need is a fair stipend that rises at the same rate as our rent. Right now, we don’t really receive a living wage for New York City. For example, I make $30,000 a year and my rent is $1,500 in Columbia-subsidized housing. And our taxes aren’t taken out of our paychecks, so every spring we have to pay up to $5,000 in taxes. We don’t have sufficient benefits either. To get these glasses, I paid for the eye exam and glasses out of pocket. Last year, I had two cavities. It cost me $450 to have them filled. I’m ok, because I don’t have children and I come from a class background in which $30,000 is considered pretty comfortable and secure. But just because I know my situation is relatively secure compared to the low wage labor members of family have performed in New York City does not make it right. One medical emergency could take me under.

And then there’s the question of children. There is no supplement or support for graduate student workers with children over the age of 5. For those with children under the age of 5, there is a $2000 childcare stipend–available by application only. Obviously this is terrible for graduate student workers who already have children, but it’s also unfair for those of us who might consider having children. This has all sorts of implications, in terms of gender, class, and race, for who can imagine a PhD and a career in academia, and how we can imagine it.

The graduate student union tried to get the administration to start addressing sexual harassment. How big of an issue is that among graduate students?

It’s a serious issue. Because graduate students occupy an ambiguous space between trainee and colleague, there is ample opportunity to manipulate us on the road to professionalization. Advising relationships are very private, receive little oversight, and it is difficult to critique or push back against the behavior of professors with prestigious reputations. We depend on our advisors for letters of recommendation, job tips, and fellowships. All of the usual inequalities are exacerbated by a culture that glorifies masochism, individualism, and the idea that you have to make your own way.
Although I have not personally been harassed by a Columbia professor in my program, I have been sexually harassed by four different professors in my academic career, I know I’m not alone, and I have seen friends leave academia altogether when they could see no recourse or recompense for their experiences of harassment. The problem is totally pervasive and exists on a continuum with the problem of campus rape that undergraduates have brought to national attention.
How is NYU instructive for this strike?
I had a close relationship to one of the activists at the forefront of the graduate student worker movement at NYU, so I was able to learn about their tactics from up close. The first contract that NYU offered their grad student workers simply reiterated the working conditions they already had, but in the form of a contract. Some NYU organizers were satisfied with that because they understood their goal to be the recognition of the union. But other organizers had a bigger vision and pushed for more, and they succeeded in negotiating a social justice contract that raised wages for all university workers and dramatically improved resources for graduate student workers with children… they had a lot of wins.
Here at Columbia, we currently have no contract. Our rights and resources are determined unilaterally: whatever the administration wants, whenever they want. The power to bargain is itself desirable. But once we get to the bargaining stage, we can’t be complacent. We have to make sure that the contract is as radical as possible. The goal is to build power against the corporate university, in collaboration with all the other unions and forces of protest in our community.
You’re a fourth year, so you won’t benefit from this effort.
That’s right. Most of the people who have led this organizing effort will not reap the benefits, so that’s why it’s ridiculous for Columbia to represent us as spoiled, selfish brats–and of course not all of us come from privilege. Graduate school is not a tea party. But as far as the long game… well, that’s true for so many social justice struggles. Students have been trying to organize as workers at Columbia for decades, so even though we won’t get to see the benefits, we know that’s true of the generations before us. We’re in solidarity with the past, and we’re in solidarity with the future. We believe that they are both ours.
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