I became aware of unionization in 2014, after I was elected the School of Engineering and Applied Science Graduate School Senator, and Graduate Workers of Columbia organizers contacted me to join their efforts. Although the prospect of unionization seemed appealing, I left my meeting with the organizers skeptical about the information I was given and the practicality of implementing a student-run union.
Still, I approached the idea with an open mind, deciding I would use my position to investigate whether Columbia’s infrastructure afforded graduate workers the means to secure GWC’s promises. After two years, I’ve found that not only is unionization unnecessary—it may be downright harmful for Columbia.
Many students are not aware that at least one peer from their school is elected to serve on the University Senate, Columbia’s policy-making body comprised of students, faculty, and administration. One of the most influential committees is the Student Affairs Caucus, composed entirely of the elected student senators. I learned very quickly in SAC that schools differ extensively in terms of student needs and the type of work the senators do. This raises three concerns regarding unionization.
First, I don’t envision a single contract that can capture all teachers and researchers in the humanities, sciences, and professional schools. These groups often have competing interests which are better served by working within the individual schools or separate contracts. The push to include undergraduates adds another dimension of complexity because most are covered under their parents’ health care and do not have families, which are two key benefits posed by GWC. GWC claims that it’s possible to include demographic-specific circumstances in the contract, but how realistic is it to account for every academic community in a single document?
Second, unions tend to fill a void for interaction with administration, whereas Columbia already has many venues for student representation. I do not know of another institution that has an executive committee with three students seated at the same table as the University President and Provost making high-level policy decisions. Although some schools are without a student council, this strategy seems more realistic than creating a second Senate focused on collective bargaining. Additionally, councils aren’t subject to National Labor Relations Board decisions, which could immediately nullify a union.
Most importantly, I fear that students will not be properly represented in a union created by the GWC under the United Automobile Workers union. According to 2015 enrollment statistics, among Ph.D.’s alone, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences drastically overwhelms the voting population (53 percent), followed by SEAS (22 percent), Columbia University Irving Medical Center (17 percent), and the professional schools at a disheartening 8 percent. The real danger is that the medical center and the professional schools essentially have no control in the union makeup or what is negotiated in a contract.
Researchers and professional students are at a disadvantage when it comes to the time they can contribute due to experiments, conferences, clinicals, internships, etc. The union bylaws and representation are drafted at voluntary meetings, which busier students are less likely to attend. These students are also largely excluded from applying for paid steward positions, which are students elected to facilitate grievances, although research assistants will pay the most in dues. The GWC reminds students they can vote against an unfair contract, but this is not reassuring given the voting disparity and considering these students will also have less time to read through bylaws or contracts, let alone vote.
There are additional concerns with the UAW and GWC setting the foundation for our union. The UAW has a mere 40 contracts with graduate students, only eight of which include research assistants. The first seven are public universities, which are subject to state labor laws. NYU is the sole private institution, subject to existence and standards as determined by the NLRB, and therefore, the best example of what we can expect at Columbia. While state laws define the line between work and academics, this distinction is less clear for private universities, and NYU has already alleged that UAW infringed on its academic agency. Additionally, NYU’s student union has also accused the very UAW-Local 2110 that would represent Columbia of interfering with union elections due to miscommunication with bylaw expectations and a full understanding of student worker appointments.
Even more alarming are the strategies GWC employs to inform students. Although GWC obtained the cards required to demonstrate support, the information they distribute is entirely one-sided, and I’m aware that many students signed cards to stop organizers from interfering with lab work. GWC has also improperly credited its organizing with several accomplishments that were actually achieved by student leaders working with administration. As it stands, I am not confident these students have fully researched Columbia’s infrastructure or the consequences of unionization and do not believe they possess the professionalism necessary for effective bargaining with administration and faculty.
Thus, this is my advice to voters.
1) Become informed before you vote. Attend town halls, read the Provost’s Q&A, visit the UAW website, know your current benefits, and navigate Columbia’s grievance resources like the Ombuds Office. 2016 doesn’t need another Brexit!
2) View information from the GWC with a critical eye. The UAW is heavily invested in unionization, which motivates and biases the content they produce. They also have the resources to produce a lot of it, whereas students may not have the time to release contrary information.
3) VOTE. It only requires a simple majority of the people that show up to vote to establish a union. Unionization will affect you, so don’t wait to find out whether your apathy was a mistake.
4) Be involved. Remember any organization’s ability to protect workers is entirely contingent on your participation. I am astounded by the number of students that just expect change to happen. No onecan help if they don’t know there is a problem.
I fully agree that unions can be necessary and have the ability to empower workers in need of protection, but in a private university at the mercy of NLRB rulings and the UAW, I cannot envision the union GWC promises. What I can picture, however, is enhanced collaboration between graduate students and administration through preexisting channels and creation of similar bodies for less represented demographics, such as the medical center council posed by SAC.
Regardless of the outcome, an important lesson of the unionization debate is that when graduate students work together and vocalize their needs, administration is responsive. History shows that the progress Columbia has made for graduate workers will continue to grow, so why should we pay someone else while we continue to do all of the work?
The author is a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student and the current president of the Engineering Graduate Student Council. She is a former SEAS Graduate School Senator and former president of the Graduate Biomedical Engineering council.
Note: Moore served as the SEAS Senator from May 2014 to May 2016 and is the current EGSC president. Although she is associated with these groups, the opinions contained in this op-ed do not reflect the official stances of EGSC or SAC. Both bodies have taken neutral stances toward unionization.
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