Graduate Workers Win UNION Rights in Landmark Labor Ruling


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With UAW support, Columbia University and The New School graduate workers win cases at NLRB, restoring union rights for teaching and research assistants 

Graduate workers’ cases break open possibility for higher education unions coast to coast

Workers and supporters call on university administrations to respect fair, democratic elections

NEW YORK – Graduate workers at Columbia University and at private universities across the country including Harvard University and The New School won back their union rights in a sweeping decision today by the National Labor Relations Board. With support for graduate workers’ rights at unprecedented levels nationwide, the Board issued today’s ruling in response to petitions filed by teaching assistants and research assistants at Columbia.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) supported graduate workers’ challenge, restoring their right to collectively bargain at Columbia and private universities across the country. Immediately following the decision, Columbia graduate workers sent a letter to university administrators asking them to respect the critical work they do for the university’s world-renowned academics and research laboratories and the right to a fair, democratic election process.

“We are excited we have finally reached this important milestone and look forward to a speedy, fair election so we can demonstrate our majority support, and get into bargaining as soon as possible,” said Olga Brudastova, a research assistant in Columbia’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. “We instruct classes, grade papers for thousands of students and push the boundaries of research and the arts, but despite these contributions and more, Columbia administrators have stood in the way of our rights. By standing together, graduate workers have already won major, university-wide improvements, and with a union, we’ll be able to secure those improvements and make Columbia do even better.”

Today’s decision reverses the Brown decision, a Bush-era ruling which stripped graduate workers of their rights as employees. The NLRB said, “We hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act. We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants.” The American Association of University Professors noted in its amicus brief to the Board that “collective bargaining by both faculty and graduate assistants is one of several ways to promote academic freedom on campus.”

“Having watched Columbia research and teaching assistants vote in 2002, only to have their ballots destroyed after the NLRB stripped them of union rights, I applaud this decision,” said Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize winner and Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia. “Given the critical role that TAs and RAs play in the fundamental missions of the University, from our hallmark Core Curriculum to leading the discussion sections that make large lecture classes possible, and conducting innovative scientific research, I sincerely hope the administration respects this decision, allows a fair vote, and bargains in good faith for a contract if a majority votes in favor of unionization.”

Graduate workers play an increasingly indispensable role in higher education instruction and research. Today, at least half of all teachers on college campuses are non-tenure track, including graduate teaching assistants. At Columbia, graduate workers also help bring in nearly $1 billion annually in grants and contracts.

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. As an organization, the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW has already won numerous improvements in every university department, including broader access to paid parental leave, larger childcare subsidies, expanded fee waivers, and, most recently, an unprecedented four years of prospectively-announced pay increases.

Still, the university has failed to fully appreciate and address the concerns of graduate workers and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a notorious anti-worker law firm to oppose workers’ right to organize. Columbia administrators and those of other universities fought the reversal of Brown and have aligned themselves with known anti-worker front groups, including the Right to Work Foundation, which submitted an amicus brief to the Board in support of the university’s position.

“Columbia, The New School and other university administrations have been offering student workers unfair conditions in exchange for our labor, and their opposition to our union rights runs counter to the legacies we want for our universities,” said Tania Aparicio, a PhD student who has worked as a TA and RA in Sociology at The New School.  “We are looking forward to forming our union with co-workers across every department, and are standing in solidarity with the wave of graduate worker unions coming together at universities throughout the country.”

More than 160 New York elected and community leaders and thousands of university professors have called on Columbia’s administration to publicly commit to respect graduate workers’ right to form a union. Support has been building around the country for graduate workers’ union rights, with amicus briefs submitted to the NLRB in favor of graduate workers’ union rights by American Association of University Professors, the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, and the NLRB General Counsel.

“This is great news. For graduate workers it’s the best news from the NLRB in years – 12 years to be precise.  Our union and hard-working graduate employees at some of our nation’s premier universities have never wavered in our pursuit of workers’ rights for tens of thousands of workers abandoned by the Bush-era Brown University decision in 2004,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A. “In anticipation of the NLRB’s restoration of workers’ rights, Columbia and Harvard began making improvements in stipends and benefits.  They are proving our case – workers do better, whether in plants or offices or even prestigious universities, when they bargain collectively.”

The landmark NLRB reversal comes on the heels of a slate of wins supported by the UAW, which has led the way in higher education organizing nationwide and currently represents more than 35,000 graduate workers at 45 campuses – more than any other U.S. union.

“From coast to coast more than 35,000 teaching assistants and research assistants have already formed their unions with the UAW, and today tens of thousands more have their rights restored to advocate for the issues that matter to them the most,” said UAW President Dennis Williams. “Since the 1980s, 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.”

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. Earlier that year, adjunct professors launched a fight for $15K per course, in concert with the broader low-wage Fight for $15 movement.

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