Together We Win: Victory at the NLRB for Academic Workers


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A Long, Hard Fight Ends in Union Rights

It’s a victory for graduate workers not only at Columbia University but private universities across the country. In August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a sweeping decision affecting graduate teaching and research assistants by restoring their right to form a union and bargain collectively. The decision follows a lengthy battle against anti-union forces at the higher education institutions, a battle that was won with the support and assistance of the UAW and eventual filing of petitions to the NLRB to reverse a previous anti-union decision in 2004. The ruling reverses the 12-year-old decision that removed union rights of graduate workers.

“UAW members in higher education have new momentum for securing a voice on the job with this NLRB ruling,” said UAW President Dennis Williams. “For decades we’ve known the hardships and lack of respect faced by thousands of graduate and research assistants at universities, both public and private, throughout the country. This latest decision from the NLRB resets their status to a positive position by reversing the 2004 decision. It reaffirms their right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Williams noted that the next president will appoint NLRB members and that it’s not a coincidence this decision overruled a Bush administration appointed labor panel. “The next president’s NLRB appointments will have a tremendous impact on working families in America,” said Williams.

Currently, the UAW represents more than 35,000 higher education academic workers at 45 campuses. “The UAW has represented employees at universities for 50 years or more and in particular, we’ve been involved with academic workers for some time,” UAW Region 9A Director Julie Kushner told WNYC-FM’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” after the ruling was released. “We have a lot of experience at the bargaining table with universities. After organizing at NYU in 2000 we were asked by adjunct faculty to help them organize and we successfully got them a great contract. This activity in higher education is long standing in the UAW. When people look for a union they want a strong union, a democratic union and one that has a track record of taking on the big employers and winning, so it’s a natural fit.”

Director Kushner said the tens of thousands of hardworking graduate employees across the nation never gave up fighting for the reversal of the 2004 ruling against unionization. That perseverance has paid off. “Columbia and Harvard administrations began improving pay and benefits before the NLRB ruling was issued because they know when workers are treated well they, and their employer, benefit,” said Kushner. “Fair treatment can only be obtained for workers through collective bargaining, and this NLRB ruling is a positive step in that direction. Graduate workers routinely bring in substantial revenue for universities in grants and contracts but labor in precarious, or unstable, working conditions and face hardships such as delayed payment, increasing teaching loads, inadequate health care coverage and sexual harassment. Without the voice that collective bargaining provides, workers have no remedy for improving these conditions.”

Paul Katz, a third-year graduate student in Latin American history and an organizer at Columbia, told the Lehrer show that the ruling makes him feel less precarious as a university employee. “It’s difficult when you’re in your late 20’s and early 30’s, committed to spending at least half a decade of your life at an institution and feel that you have no say about the conditions under which you work,” said Katz.

“Graduate workers I’ve talked to are deeply concerned about the cost of health care. Adding dependents to our health coverage is extremely expensive because our plans were designed for 19-year-old undergraduates,” said Katz. “Lack of dental and vision coverage, the lack of a formal grievance process, no protection against sexual harassment and assault — these are hard to address acting individually. But when we come together to organize we can get the administration to move on our priorities,” he said.

Working together with the UAW in solidarity makes a difference. And it paid off with this latest NLRB ruling for hardworking graduate workers.

Joan Silvi

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