Nearly 7,000 Ivy League workers now set to vote on UAW representation against administration opposition
NEW YORK – With broad-scale support from members of Congress, New York elected and community leaders, faculty, students and graduate workers across every university department, Columbia research assistants and teaching assistants will vote on December 7 and 8 to form their union with the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Union (GWC-UAW).
“We have looked forward to this day for two and a half years,” said Olga Brudastova, a PhD student who has worked as a teaching and research assistant in Civil Engineering. “After thousands of conversations among ourselves as RAs and TAs, and despite Columbia’s efforts to stop our campaign, we will finally get to vote for GWC-UAW as our union and win recognition from the administration.”
Between mid-November and early December, nearly 7,000 RAs and TAs at Columbia and Harvard will vote on union representation with the UAW.
“This is a historic moment for the future of academic work in the Ivy League,” said Aaron Bekemeyer, a PhD student and teaching fellow in the History Department at Harvard. “Nearly 7,000 of us will vote in the next six weeks on having a real voice at our universities.”
Graduate workers play an increasingly indispensable role in higher education instruction and research. At Columbia, graduate workers help bring in nearly $1 billion annually in grants and contracts and teach thousands of students. At the same time, graduate workers face constant insecurity and unpredictability of working conditions – growing teaching loads, late pay, unreliable health benefits and sexual harassment, with little meaningful recourse. While the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW has won numerous improvements to parental leave, childcare and pay, Columbia University has failed to fully address the concerns of graduate workers and has resisted putting any of these policies into a binding contract.
“We’re proud to support graduate workers at Columbia, Harvard and universities across the country who are working to make their universities the best they can be for students and faculty,” said Julie Kushner, the Director of UAW Region 9A. “When research and teaching assistants bargain collectively, they win real improvements that benefit their entire community – fair pay, job security, healthcare, and grievance procedures that protect against harassment on the job. We’re excited to see Columbia graduate workers vote yes and support them in bargaining for the strongest contract possible.”
Columbia graduate workers’ vote to form their union follows a landmark labor decision by the National Labor Relations Board that restored their union rights, as well as a slate of wins supported by the UAW. The New York Times said that with their union rights restored, “life for many graduate students is about to change for the better.”
In September, more than 60 members of Congress, including U.S. Representatives Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler, sent a letter urging Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and other university administrators to support a fair and free union election. Across the country, thousands of students, graduate workers, faculty and other community members have signed a petition in support of graduate workers’ right to collectively bargain for better pay and benefits and improved workplace conditions. The petition asks university administrators at Columbia and other prestigious universities to end their aggressive campaigns to discourage TAs and RAs from voting in favor of a union.
“Across the country, more than 35,000 teaching assistants and research assistants have already formed their unions with the UAW, and many more are organizing to have a voice at their places of work,” said UAW President Dennis Williams. “For the last four decades, the UAW has helped graduate workers and other higher education employees fight for and win respect for their work and the right to a union at public and private universities nationwide.”
The UAW represents more than 35,000 graduate workers at 45 campuses – more than any other U.S. union. After an eight-year effort to win back their union, NYU graduate workers won a neutrality agreement with the university administration in 2013. Since then, thousands of graduate workers at Columbia, The New School, Harvard, and other universities started organizing their unions through the UAW. Recently, graduate workers at Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh have launched similar efforts to form a union. In 2015, 2,200 UConn graduate assistants organized and bargained their first contract with UAW and adjunct faculty at Barnard College also voted to form a union with the UAW, and the administration acknowledged it.
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