When The Union Comes A-Knocking

Reporting by Mary Elizabeth Dawson

Earlier today, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) released an open letter declaring their intention to hold a strike authorization vote. This decision comes after the GWC’s three-and-a-half year unionization process and subsequent struggle to gain recognition from the Columbia administration.

After being certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in December 2017, the GWC Bargaining Committee contacted President Bollinger and Provost Coatsworth in hopes of initiating bargaining. In his now-infamous email to the Columbia community, Provost Coatsworth announced that the administration would not engage in bargaining with the GWC. Some critics believe that the Columbia administration is waiting for the Trump administration to make changes to the NLRB, which are expected to undo Obama-era reforms favoring unions. To this end, seeking “review of the status of student assistants by a federal appellate court” would initiate a notoriously slow legal process that could buy Columbia enough time for the NLRB to see the University’s viewpoint.

On February 1, graduate workers protested the administration’s decision outside Low Library, and by that evening, union members had agreed to organize a strike authorization vote. Students also demonstrated during the inauguration of Sian Beilock, marching down the aisle in Riverside Church and displaying signs during the speeches of President Bollinger and President of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer. Following the protest, security tried to identify the protesters and prevented them from entering the post-inaugural reception, where President Beilock was expected to make rounds.

Many advocates of the strike hope to resolve issues regarding their stipends. Among graduate workers, those in science departments are often paid more than those in humanities departments, despite doing comparable amounts of work. Other workers sense no accountability when it comes to stipends, claiming they do not have a resource to consult if and when they do not receive their payments on time. Other union members decry the inadequacy of sexual harassment resources for graduate workers. Research and teaching assistants are generally directed to department heads when reporting instances of sexual harassment, which constitutes a considerable conflict of interest.

The University argued in its letter to the student body that it was concerned about having “an outside party involved in what are ultimately academic and intellectual judgments by faculty members.” It is unknown exactly how undergraduate students will be affected. Teaching assistants generally lead recitation sessions across mainly 4-point lecture courses. Graduate students often grade midterm and final examinations for undergraduates, which in the case of a strike may be left to the professor. Furthermore, Core classes in the Columbia College/General Studies program, like Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, and University Writing, are often taught by graduate students.

In a succinct letter to President Bollinger, the GWC cited their petition for the administration to drop objections against unionization, drawing attention to the union’s support from students, faculty, and elected leaders of the Columbia community. The GWC argued that Bollinger has “a legal—in addition to a moral and democratic—obligation to bargain.” The letter also includes a comprehensive list of graduate workers committed to organizing a strike if necessary. Graduate worker Davio Cianci explained that this list is meant not only to demonstrate the union’s presence across all fields of study but also to offer a resource for graduate and undergraduate students seeking to learn more about the GWC and/or become more involved in its efforts to gain recognition from the University.

While the letter to Bollinger is not a definitive strike declaration, it is a promise that the GWC plans to take any action it believes necessary to prompt an agreement to bargain from the University.

We will provide updates as the situation develops.

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