Columbia Graduate Assistants Vote for UAW

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By Michael Rose

Dec. 9 — Graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University in New York voted for union representation, the United Auto Workers announced.

Graduate assistants voted 1,602 to 623 in favor of the union in a vote conducted over the past two days, the UAW said. The results were confirmed on the website of the National Labor Relations Board, which supervised the election. There were also 647 challenged ballots, but that would not have been enough to affect the outcome of the election, the agency said.

There were 4,256 eligible voters, including some undergraduate teaching assistants, the NLRB said.

The union organizing effort among graduate assistants at Columbia began several years ago, and it culminated in August when the NLRB found they are eligible to form a union. That decision overturned a 12-year-old precedent on graduate assistants organizing at private universities. It also spurred additional organizing efforts at schools across the U.S.

Vote ‘Paved the Way.’

“This is just the beginning of great things to come for the Columbia community and we’re proud to stand with graduate workers to bargain collectively for important improvements to pay and benefits that strengthen academic quality and student success,” Julie Kushner, UAW Region 9A director, said in a statement. “By standing together, Columbia graduate workers have paved the way for thousands of other research assistants and teaching assistants to have a recognized voice in America’s higher education and build the institutions that we need for a more fair, just and equitable country.”

Throughout the process at the NLRB, Columbia opposed the unionization effort, arguing that graduate assistants are primarily students and therefore ineligible to form a union under federal labor law. The university argued that unionization would make fundamental, negative changes to the relationship between the school and its graduate students.

Kushner told Bloomberg BNA she hopes the university will “take advantage of this moment to really reassess their approach to the union.”

“There are many things we can work together on to [improve] higher education, and I hope they understand that,” she said. For example, the union and Columbia could work together to secure additional funding for research and to obtain visas for international students, Kushner said.

Future Collaboration?

“We should be working together in the coming months and not let things we disagree about in collective bargaining divide us,” she said.

In a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA, Columbia Provost John Coatsworth said the university “always believed that the magnitude of the decision at issue in this election, in combination with Columbia’s values, required an open and respectful conversation that explained the arguments for and against unionization. Having heard those arguments, the research and teaching assistants who voted have chosen to be represented by the United Auto Workers.”

“We will continue to ensure that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment,” Coatsworth said.

Meanwhile, the NLRB is in the process of determining the outcome of a representation election at Harvard University, where graduate assistants voted in November. Some 1,200 ballots at Harvard are being challenged, and board officials are in the process of resolving the challenges, Kushner said.

Kushner said she hopes a final vote tally among Harvard graduate assistants will be available before the holiday break.

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

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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