Columbia Students Can Vote to Unionize for Employee Rights

Posted By Derek Johnson on October 14, 2016 at 11:00 am
Columbia Students Can Vote to Unionize for Employee Rights

At the start of most academic years, students at Columbia University typically return to campus looking to reconnect with old friends, further their education and lay the groundwork for a career. This year, they will also be critical players in a national debate about student unions with consequences that could ripple across the higher education landscape.

For the last three years, graduate and undergraduate students have been pushing to form a student union – one with the power to collectively bargain with the university over matters like pay, hours and benefits for students who are also employed by the university. A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in August awarded students at Columbia the right to vote on unionization, overturning previous precedents and touching off a contentious conflict with administrators and raised questions nationally about the viability of collective bargaining in higher learning.

The decision was cheered by national union organizations across the country as a win for workers’ rights.

“This is a major victory for teaching and research assistants at Columbia University and in similar institutions across the country,” Sonia Huq, the AFL-CIO’s organizing field communications assistant, wrote the day after the decision was announced. “While it’s obvious to anyone who has walked in their shoes that most graduate teaching and research assistants are seriously committed to their work, it is not an easy task to balance your academic work with your job, especially when you don’t get decent wages, health care or help navigating a university system that treats you as expendable.”

Student unions are not new, though to date they have been mostly confined to public universities subject to state legislatures. If the student body votes to unionize, Columbia will be just the second private university (and the first Ivy League school) where student employees are formally recognized under the purview of the National Labor Relations Act. The school’s provost has set up a resource page, while student groups in favor of unionizing have been conducting voter outreach and persuasion efforts around campus. A vote is not yet scheduled, but it is expected to take place sometime before the end of the fall semester.

To be clear, such a union would not be empowered to bargain on behalf of students over academic matters, like coursework or grades, but rather the working conditions of students employed by the university as researchers, teaching assistants and graduate assistants. However, Columbia’s administration and some labor law experts across the country have raised questions and concerns about the effect collective bargaining might have over the academic process and where the line is drawn between work that is purely an economic exchange and work that bleeds over into a student’s academic life.

A question of a union’s benefit

One of the biggest points of contention in this debate is when a student assistant’s work stops being for their own educational benefit and starts crossing the line into the kind of purely economic exchange that defines a traditional employer-employee relationship. Indeed, those concerns originally led the NLRB to deny student assistants the right to unionize in 2004, with board members ruling that doing so could fundamentally alter the relationship between student and university and intrude on the academic process that underpins much of higher learning.

“[We] conclude that because graduate assistants ‘are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university,’ they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and the Board cannot exercise jurisdiction over them,” wrote the board majority in 2004.

Last month’s ruling by the NRLB overturned that decision, essentially ruling that the paid work performed by student assistants was separate and independent from their academic roles as students. The fact that paid graduate assistants are also students does not cancel out their right to collectively bargain under the National Labor Relations Act. From the board’s August 2016 decision:

“The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.”

If the vote goes through, all students at Columbia would become part of that union, represented by the United Automobile Workers, and subject to union dues and collectively bargained policies. The union would also have the power to call for a strike, something that could potentially interfere with or delay a student’s projects or academic career. It may also fuel other unionization movements currently underway at colleges and universities across the country.

Charles Vethan, an attorney who practices labor law on behalf of corporate clients, called the potential for academic intrusion “a tough question,” arguing that, in many cases, there are no bright lines or distinctions that can be easily drawn to distinguish academic work from the kind of economic activity that is subject to collective bargaining.

“If [a student] is there doing some rudimentary task in the lab, not writing or teaching, but cleaning the beakers, I can understand that is just a J-O-B and not something that benefits them academically,” Vethan said. “If someone is there to be involved in the research, to assist in the teaching, then that is necessarily an educational task. The NRLB has a default setting that it doesn’t intrude. Well how do you know when it does and when it doesn’t? On this decision, they’re not making that distinction.”

Olga Brudastova, a fourth-year civil engineering PH.D student from the pro-unionization student group Graduate Workers of Columbia, disputed that notion, saying there are a range of worker-related issues like health care, timely payment, sick leave and affordable housing that are unrelated to academic work. She called the hand-wringing over academic intrusion one of many “pseudo-concerns” put forth by Columbia administrators designed to cast vague doubts around the viability of unionizing.

“They never give an example of an existing graduate student union having problems in this regard. There are 60-plus campuses across the country that have unions, and they don’t have a problem in terms of having a line between academic and work life.”

Extraordinary demands

Mitchell Langbert, professor of human resource management and labor relations at Brooklyn College, also expressed skepticism about the effects that unionization might have on the student/professor relationship, which he characterized as necessarily demanding. Many students – particularly at the graduate level – have their commitment tested through grueling and sometimes even unfair working conditions, Langbert said.

“I think that there can and sometimes ought to be extraordinary demands placed on graduate students.  One of the processes used in education is the creation of cognitive dissonance or mental conflict,” Langbert said, later adding “I became an academic because of stringent treatment I received from a marketing professor at UCLA, when I was an MBA student. His demands made me think about what it means to be a social scientist.”

Brudastova countered that the existence of a union governing working conditions does not automatically mean the dynamic of self-sacrifice for academic benefit will dissipate. She drew from a story from her personal experience as a first year international graduate student and teaching assistant, claiming that on multiple occasions that she did not receive payment for her work until months after classes ended. Brudastova claims these are the type of matters that a Columbia student union would hope to address.

“Yes, I would agree the academic work is very unique and does come with certain sacrifices, it doesn’t mean the amount of sacrifices should be as overwhelming as it is,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that there will be no sacrifices once we have a union, there will be plenty of those. We won’t be able to just change things drastically.”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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