Columbia Graduate Assistants to Vote on Union

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By Michael Rose

Nov. 1 — Graduate research and teaching assistants at Columbia University in New York will vote Dec. 7-8 on whether to be represented by a United Auto Workers affiliate ( Columbia Univ. , 2016 BL 362287, N.L.R.B. Reg’l Dir., No. 02-RC-143012, 10/31/16 ).

The union announced the election Nov. 1 after a National Labor Relations Board official issued a decision outlining voting eligibility requirements. The proposed bargaining unit includes some 3,000 research and teaching assistants in all divisions of the university.

The UAW’s efforts at Columbia were the basis of a closely watched NLRB decision issued in late August that found graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities were eligible to unionize. In that ruling, the board overturned a 12-year-old precedent on the matter, and unions have since ramped up their organizing efforts at various schools across the country.

Harvard Goes First

Graduate assistants at Harvard University are set to vote on unionization later this month, in what will be the first representation election held after the Columbia NLRB decision.

NLRB Regional Director Karen P. Fernbach largely agreed with the union on the contours of the bargaining unit at Columbia and who would be eligible to vote, Julie Kushner, UAW Region 9A director, told Bloomberg BNA.

“We advocated for the inclusion of Ph.D. graduate students who have worked in the last year,” Kushner said, and those graduate assistants will be able to vote in the election, even if they’re not working during the current semester. “It’s along the lines of what we were looking for, so we’re pleased,” she said.

Undergraduate students who hold paid teaching assistant positions also will be eligible to vote, according to Fernbach’s decision.

Until the NLRB issued its decision finding that graduate assistants could form unions, Columbia consistently opposed the UAW’s organizing efforts.

Columbia Seeks ‘Substantive Discussion’ of Issues

In a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA, Columbia Provost John Coatsworth said the upcoming election would “provide Columbia students serving as teaching and research assistants the chance to weigh the value of membership in the United Auto Workers.”

“True to the free speech values of the university, between now and December 7-8, we look forward to a thoughtful, substantive discussion about the impact of having the union represent students in this essential part of their academic training and educational experience,” Coatsworth said. “We hope all eligible students will inform themselves on the issues, consider the costs of representation by the UAW along with the promised benefits—and then get out and vote.”

If graduate assistants vote in favor of union representation, Kushner said it would be “much harder for Columbia to continue to resist.”

“There will be a lot of people who question the wisdom of sinking more resources into fighting this movement,” Kushner said. “It’s not just a question of money and resources, but Columbia begins to really look obsessed with preventing collective bargaining, and that’s not good for Columbia and its admissions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Rose in Washington at mrose@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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