Columbia Students Prepare to Vote on Unionization

Tiffany Pennamon @tiffanypennamon

Students on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In 2014, Columbia graduate students unsuccessfully petitioned to be recognized as an official union by the university. Next week, they are getting a second chance.

With a vote to unionize scheduled for Wednesday, graduate students heard arguments for and against the move during several information sessions this week. University officials called the meetings after sending an email on August 24 that encouraged all eligible graduate students to “inform themselves of the arguments on both sides of this important issue.”

The move to unionize follows the unprecedented decision on August 23 by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to allow graduate student workers at private colleges and universities to unionize. The ruling applies to graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants.

If a majority of eligible graduate students vote “Yes” for unionization, the Graduate Workers of Columbia will become an affiliate of the United Auto Workers Local 2110. And since the union would legally represent all graduate student workers, each of those students, including those who vote against unionizing, would be required to pay fees equaling roughly two percent of their annual compensation.

Pro-union supporters say that having a third party that files grievances and represents them is essential for more action in cases where the university does not help enough. They believe unionizing would help them deal with issues like late pay, labor exploitation, health care and sexual assault by employers.

“Without a legally binding contract, the university decides when it wants to listen to grads,” Jason Resnikoff, a history graduate student and pro-union supporter said during the panel discussion. “Our strength comes from our unity. The whole point is to show that we’re united.”

Panelist Noura Farra, also in favor of the union, agreed. “A lot of people are afraid to even ask their advisor for vacation time,” Farra said. “We’re not going to be asking for unreasonable things. It’s to have a seat at the table.”

At a similar information session held on Thursday, Provost John Coatsworth and Carlos Alonso, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, answered questions from nearly two dozen graduate students.

“Anytime anyone has difficulty on campus, we will stand behind them,” Coatsworth said. “I don’t know if a union will necessarily be helpful. In order for this to work, we must build confidence in the process we’ve created.”

One student interrupted. “We’re not represented as workers,” he said.

Coatsworth argued that university organizations and offices like the Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC), the Ombuds Office, or the Gender-Based Misconduct Office allow students to voice their concerns about work-related issues they face.

At Friday’s meeting, panelist Megan Armstrong, a biomedical engineering student who is against unionization, made similar arguments. “My colleagues who’ve had bad situations got them sorted out,” she said. “It leads me to believe that we have a good relationship within the engineering school with the faculty and administration. It’s not worth paying dues to have the same thing happen.”

Still, Armstrong and Mohammed Shaik, also a biomedical engineering student who opposed unionization, did agree that there are potential benefits to voting for union representation.

“I’m not ever going to say unionization at Columbia is going to be bad,” said Shaik. “But I would say that for yourself, look up the things that matter to you, and to your friends and colleagues, and figure out whether or not a union at Columbia will help you with those issues.”

Following the NLRB ruling in August, Coatsworth launched an interactive website with resources and information concerning unions and the NLRB’s decision. The website provides a list of frequently asked questions, voting eligibility requirements, and the official ruling by the NLRB.

“Over the past decade, Columbia’s schools have made great strides in addressing a number of stipend and quality-of-life concerns,” Coatsworth said in an email addressed to the entire student body in late August. “Regardless of the outcome of the election, we will continue to ensure that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment.”