Columbia Seeks Review of Obama-Era Grad Student Union Rules

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By Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg) and Lawrence E. Dubé (Bloomberg Law)

Columbia University will not engage in collective bargaining with graduate students who won a National Labor Relations Board unionization vote, and will instead ask a federal appeals court to take up the issue, the university announced in a letter to the campus community Jan. 30.

“Because of the principles at stake—principles essential to the University’s mission of training scholars—we have declined to bargain until the legal process has been allowed to run its course,” university Provost John Coatsworth said in the letter, which was shared by a spokeswoman.

United Auto Workers won a NLRB-supervised election at Columbia in December 2016 by a 1602-623 vote, following a precedent-setting ruling by the Labor Board that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at the university are employees with the right to unionize. The Labor Board at the time had a Democratic majority.

“I’m outraged by Columbia’s refusal to bargain,” UAW regional director Julie Kushner told Bloomberg News. “There’s no question that they are breaking the law when they refuse to bargain, and they can try and put it in flowery language, but they’re ignoring the will of their graduate employees, and it’s wrong.”

The NLRB’s decision in the Columbia case overruled a 2004 ruling that Brown University didn’t have to recognize a union for its graduate students because their relationship with Brown was “primarily educational.”

In the Columbia case, the board ruled 3-1 that student assistants are employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The board’s certification of the UAW’s 2016 election win means the union has the right to bargain with the university about the graduate students’ wages, hours, and working conditions.

Labor Board election decisions like the one certifying the UAW are not generally appealable to the courts. However, an employer can obtain a court test of an election ruling by refusing to bargain with the certified union, and raising its objections to the union certification as its defense. The university’s Jan. 30 letter indicates Columbia is looking for such an opportunity to argue in court that the NLRB erred in finding that graduate students are employees with a right under federal law to unionize.

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