Support graduate students’ right to unionize

Columbia University administrators have provided administrators at other universities with a shining example of what not to do when graduate students attempt unionization. In February, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the school’s teaching and research assistants had the right to form a union. About a month later, the graduate students went to the polls to vote on a proposal to utilize that right.

But because of university officials’ efforts, led by Associate Vice President for Public Affairs Virgil Renzulli, those votes have yet to be counted. Columbia University immediately appealed the NLRB decision to the board’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, claiming graduate students were, despite all their paid work as teaching assistants, just students and did not qualify as university employees. And until this appeal is settled, the votes will remain uncounted.

On May 1, Columbia’s Graduate Student Employees United joined forces with university clerical workers – who are members of the United Auto Workers Local 2110 – as well as members of the Undergraduate Coalition for Union Rights, Yale University’s Student Labor Action Coalition, New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee and maintenance workers from the city’s Transit Workers Union in a one-day strike that brought many of the school’s classes to a halt. Teaching assistants run most of the mandatory freshman composition classes at Columbia, and the strike affected more than 300 of those classes’ students.

The strike’s timing exacerbated its effects; that Wednesday was the last full week of classes at Columbia, meaning many of the classes were review sessions. Renzulli and members of the school’s Graduate Students Against Unionization used this to condemn the strike, saying it was too detrimental to Columbia’s educational goals. Administrators even went so far as to issue letters of warning to clerical workers, saying they could be subject to disciplinary action for participating in a sympathy strike.

The clerical workers were docked a day’s pay for their involvement, which is to be expected. But what should not be expected, or indeed tolerated, is the university’s vehemence in undermining the right of workers to unionize. Though they are students, the fact the university pays them in exchange for the services they provide clearly lands them firmly in the “workers” category. That an institution of higher learning would actively try to subvert their right to organize is unconscionable. The fault for the missed learning opportunities falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are in the wrong: the Columbia University administration.

A similar movement has occasionally surfaced here at the University, though every time it has drifted out of the spotlight as the initial flurry of support dwindled. If and when graduate students here attempt to unionize, we hope University administrators will show the same commitment to workers’ rights they showed with the recent passage of a code of conduct for apparel licensees. In fact, the breadth of and language used in the conduct code gives reasonable hope that this will be the case; to do otherwise would present an inconsistency University President Mark Yudof has thus far never shown.

As for Columbia University, their administrators clearly must reverse their current course, embarrassing as that might be. To continue their staunch opposition to unionization by those who, in many cases, make the school function would transcend embarrassment. The ballots must be counted. If the students choose not to form a union, so be it. Right now, their day at the polls is more important.