The 20-Year Fight to Unionize Grad Student WorkersBreaking News
tags: graduate students, labor history, Labor Unions, academic labor
For the last six weeks, graduate student workers at Columbia University have walked a picket line at the school’s Manhattan campus as they seek to negotiate a union contract that includes a living wage, better health care, and greater protections against harassment and discrimination. There has been music and dancing and marching and a giant inflatable fat cat perched atop a red car. Reports from the picket line take an overwhelming uplifting tone, and morale appears high, but this is a testament to the dedication and energy of the organizers—because the bare facts of the case are bleak. In 2014, I watched members of this union deliver a letter to the university president that asked him to voluntarily recognize their union. Now, seven years later, 3,000 members of Student Workers of Columbia are out on strike—currently the largest strike in the United States, in a year of many. That seven-year interval is a sign of the glacially paced tug-of-war that has defined the decades-long struggle of graduate employees to unionize.
These employees include graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants. In Columbia’s current union (part of UAW Local 2110), both graduate and undergraduate student workers are members of the bargaining unit. Graduate employees at public universities have long enjoyed the right to collective bargaining, but their peers at private universities, where undergraduate tuition and fees can stretch over $60,000, have seen their right to do the same fiercely debated. A long history illuminates the years of work that brought about the Columbia strike—and the ways in which the terms of the debate remain stubbornly unchanged.
In 2001, graduate employees at New York University—members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, or GSOC, also part of UAW Local 2110—became the first of their kind at a private university successfully to form a union and negotiate a contract with the administration. The National Labor Relations Board had ruled a year earlier that graduate teaching assistants were, in fact, employees, overturning decisions from 1972 and 1974 that stated that teaching and research assistants were primarily students, not workers protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Under the NYU contract, teaching assistants saw wages increase and working conditions improve.
The victory was short-lived: In 2004, the NLRB was leaning to the right, thanks to new appointees by President George W. Bush, and faced a decision about whether graduate employees at Brown University had the right to unionize. Graduate student workers at Brown were seeking to build on GSOC’s success, but the board sided with the university, declaring that graduate employees were not workers with collective bargaining rights. The next year, GSOC’s contract expired, and the NYU administration, citing the Brown decision as precedent, refused to negotiate a new contract.
At the same time, graduate employees at Columbia were trying to unionize. In 2002, they held a union election, but the university appealed their right to unionize to the NLRB, and the ballots were never counted.