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Students or employees? Union clash at Columbia

New York Teacher
Courtesy United Auto Workers

Columbia graduate assistants are embroiled in a battle with the university over unionization.

Are graduate students who work 20 to 30 hours a week teaching and doing related tasks employees of the university or simply students?

That is the question at the heart of the current conflict between Columbia University graduate assistants who are trying to unionize and the university management that is attempting to block them.

The National Labor Relations Board under President Obama said they are employees. Reversing the decision of a Bush-era board, it ruled in August that graduate students in private-sector universities can be considered employees if they are paid for work the school oversees. (States decide whether graduate students at public universities can unionize.)

In December, Columbia graduate assistants voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers union. But now Columbia is challenging that vote, in what the students see as “a classic delay move,” said Olga Brudastova, an engineering graduate student and teaching assistant who is part of the organizing effort.

The National Labor Relations Board in January heard arguments to determine if there is merit in Columbia University’s allegations of voter “coercion” and other labor law violations. While Columbia’s case was heard by a regional board, any decision is likely to be appealed to the national NLRB, whose members are appointed by the president.

The makeup of that federal panel will change under the Trump administration. Brudastova said “there is an urgency in going to the bargaining table” before a new board appointed under Trump has the chance to reverse its position on graduate assistants’ union rights.

Lee Adler, of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says appointments to the board have become increasingly partisan in the last 12 to 15 years. “A Democrat (and the occasional Republican) will look at a Ph.D. student who works 30 hours a week to get various things from the university in terms of financial aid and see both a student and an employee,” he said. “A Republican (and some Democrats) will look at the same Ph.D. student and see a student.”

Hence, the board’s seesawing position, which Adler believes will tip again within the next four years, with graduate assistants “being just students, not employees.”

The immediate issue is whether Columbia will become the nation’s second private university with a graduate-student union — New York University became the first in 2013.

But the concerns of 3,500 Columbia graduate assistants, Brudastova said, “are the concerns of every worker in every workplace: health care, benefits for dependents, late payments, housing opportunities and grievance procedures” and are magnified for international graduate assistants who cannot be employed off-campus.

“What we get from Columbia sets the standard for our lives and work experience,” she said. “This is the only resource we have.”

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