A Pan-American Students' Movement Is Being Throttled By Elite Private Universities

Since March 2015, graduate students working at Columbia University have been fighting for the right to unionise. The varsity, however, has been less than supportive.

In the fall of 2014, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) and the UAW held a card drive to demonstrate that a majority of graduate student workers favoured unionisation. Over 80% of graduate workers supported unionisation. Credit: Soumya Shankar

New York: In March 2015, Longxi Zhao, a PhD student at the elite Columbia University, was terminated from his job as a teaching assistant (TA) in the department of chemical engineering without due diligence. The university administration turned a blind eye to the repeated pleas and petitions from the students. Longxi’s dreams about making it big in New York City were packed into a foldable bag and returned safely to China, for without his job, he had no means to stay here and continue his studies.

What followed was a protracted students’ movement that is currently in the throes of re-drawing the intersection of labour and academia in the US. Across the country, TAs, increasingly getting organised, are rising up against university administrations. They say the administrations are cutting wages, increasing workloads and have healthcare benefits too minuscule to matter.

Columbia University has been at the forefront of this battle.

In January 2014, a few graduate student workers at Columbia University started talking about unionising, to have a say in decisions that affect work at the university and to improve work conditions. A few months earlier, the union of the graduate workers at New York University (NYU) was recognised after eight years of struggle. This gave the students of Columbia new impetus to begin their own graduate workers’ struggle. A few graduate student workers at Columbia reached out to the United Automobile Workers (UAW) who had been involved with organising other campaigns, including the one at NYU.

In the fall of 2014, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) and the UAW held a card drive to demonstrate that a majority of graduate student workers favoured unionisation. Over 80% of graduate workers supported unionisation.

But Columbia University wasn’t willing to take it all lying down. The university, like other private universities in the US, has held that students who perform services related to their educational programmes primarily have an educational – not economic – relationship with their institutions, and that such political meandering on the campus sours the relationship between the teaching staff and students.

Columbia’s administrators refused to speak to the students directly, choosing instead to unleash an expensive legal battle onto them that stretched on for a year. They roped in the notorious and pricey law firm Proskauer Rose – known for its anti-union stand – and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). What ensued was a legal fight between the students and the university administration, the likes of which private universities in the US hadn’t witnessed in a long time.

The odds were in the students’ favour. In August 2016, the NLRB board issued a historic decision to allow the graduate workers of Columbia and all other private universities to unionise and engage in collective bargaining, reversing a 2004 NLRB ruling that said graduate students were not employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

As was the norm, Columbia’s student-workers expected to hold an election during the fall of 2016. If a majority of participating workers voted “yes” in that election, Columbia would have a legal obligation to bargain with GWC-UAW and sanction their union.

An overwhelming 72% mandate was given to unionisation in that vote – a clear rejection of the university’s intensive, months-long effort to convince students to vote “no”. But Columbia’s administrators continued their pattern of opposing the democratic will of research assistants (RAs) and TAs.

“It is sad that President Bollinger is a champion of the First Amendment and is on this national future voting committee. He disrespected our vote and even though he’s anti-Trump, he’s actually waiting for Trump to bail him out,” said Trevor Hull, an active member of the GWC and a student at Columbia.

In September 2016, dozens of Congressional leaders signed a statement applauding the NLRB decision and urged administrators of private universities “to ensure a climate that ensures free and fair elections”.

“It would be a huge mistake to attempt to roll back these workers’ right to organise,” senator Bernie Sanders wrote in an open letter to the university. The GWC garnered support across other universities, with Yale, Harvard and Penn State, among others, forming their own proto-unions and engaging with their respective administrations for bargaining. Their demands were often met with a heavy onslaught by their respective universities.

A year and a half later, Columbia university students are still organising and protesting around this issue.

In December 2016, US President Donald Trump reshaped the federal agency to make it friendlier to employers. His picks for the NLRB have flipped the five-member board from liberal to conservative for the first time in years. Some fear that the new board will reverse the current legal precedent and say that graduate students at Columbia and other private schools are not eligible to unionise, thereby putting an end to the collective struggles of thousands of students across the country.

How did the students, a small minority with no practical precedents of organising themselves, turn into seasoned protestors overnight?

Workers of the world unite

Graduate student workers’ movements in the US would not have taken their current shape without the massive galvanising efforts of the UAW. Established in 1930 and headquartered in Detroit, the UAW has over 400,000 members across the US, Puerto Rico and Canada, out of which 65,000 workers work solely in universities around issues of higher education, the biggest group of which is RAs and TAs.

Under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the UAW played a major role in the liberal wing of the Democratic party, fought for civil rights and was the first union to organise African-American workers.

The UAW has always been very diverse on the range of issues it raises. “Particularly in the 9A region, there is really no more auto union left,” says Julie Kushner, president of the 9A region that oversees all campaigns in north-eastern US and Puerto Rico.

The organisation has a long history of working with higher education. “In the late 1990s, I was working with some students at NYU and they expressed a desire to unionise. From there, we moved to organising at Columbia and then Brown and Tufts – I have really seen these movements flower,” adds Kushner.

Columbia university.

The legal status of the right to a union for student employees in the private sector had been ambiguous in the US, until the Columbia decision.

The UAW helps student agitators with human resources and finances. It is democratic in its proceedings – you don’t pay membership dues until you actually win a union and/or get to bargain a contract with your organisation. Prior to that, all resources – legal, financial and human – are paid for by existing UAW members.

The UAW also helps in strategising to help put pressure on the universities by eliciting support from, like in the Columbia case, influencers like Sanders who have a bleeding heart for the Left and issues like unionisation. The only thing they want in exchange is that when you actualise your demands and become full members of the union, one of the things you aim for is to help other struggles achieve completion. For this, the local union at Columbia will have to pay a total of under 2% of their gross income to the UAW, but only after the contract has been negotiated. The amount is paltry; the idea is that smaller grains fill the bigger sack and help ensure that the revolution is carried on.

Post Columbia, the UAW has fuelled similar campaigns in Harvard, Boston College and Boston University to name a few.

Liberal bastions turned oppressors?

Resistance to the UAW’s efforts has been met with equal force by giants of the academic world, particularly Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Boston College and the University of Chicago. These universities are fighting unionisation efforts by refusing to bargain with their students. UChicago has raised the legal question of whether RAs and personal assistants can be called ‘workers’ at all. The idea is to ride on the backs of the newly-Republican NLRB that will ensure the universities have their way.

There must be a reason why elite private universities – Ivy Leagues in particular – have cracked the whip stronger than the others.

Since the Columbia decision was made, a few private universities – Tufts, American University, The New School – have agreed to bargain. Most of them are smaller universities.

The bigger universities have more resources to spend on lawyers and think of themselves as particularly elite. They are led to believe that collective bargaining somehow disrupts the academic relationship between graduate workers and their professors.

However, graduate workers at public universities have already been allowed to unionise for decades. The public-sector labour law is governed under states’ jurisprudence and not under the NLRB. In a state where the labour laws support the right to a union, the university is forced to bargain with students.

Universities of Washington, California, Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut and City University of New York already have unions. The way the employment structure works at Washington is no different than in Columbia – the relationship between professors and students is no different. Unions have worked fine in these universities since 2004, so why will they especially fail in the Ivy Leagues?

On the other hand, it is not that Ivy League universities lack the ability to pay for improvements. Columbia, in the two years leading up to the students’ movements, increased wages by 12% and provided childcare subsidy, among other things. “If this is about anything, it is about power and control. The money is not irrelevant, but it is not the driving force,” says Kushner.

Columbia University wants to retain control on whether or not they should give a raise every year. Neither of the elite universities wants to cave in first. Given that three of them used the same law firm is proof that there is a collaboration. All seven other Ivy League institutions, in addition to Stanford and MIT, filed a brief with the NLRB supporting Columbia’s anti-union stance. Even the national lobbying body of the Ivies – the National Council of Education – submitted an amicus brief in the Columbia case, arguing against RAs and TAs getting the right to unionise. 

The future of the movement

Even after two letters from Sanders and five other senators, a national outcry and 32,000 signatories on a national petition urging Columbia to drop its objections, the university has still not budged. “Even people who were not necessarily on board without fight understand that Columbia has to respect democracy and the values that they say they protect otherwise,” said Olga Burdakowa, a well-known face of the GWC’s unionisation drive and a student worker at Columbia.

“You can read their objections, they’re totally baseless. It’s ridiculous. They know they have the power to fight this and delay it as much as possible. They’re just hoping we get tired,” says Hull.

“It’s been 11 months and we’ve been dragging our feet. The administration at any point could say, “alright we’ll bargain with you”. They could just drop the case and we could start bargaining. But they won’t,” adds Burdakowa.

Even though there have been “yes” votes in Tufts, Chicago and others, not even one private university has solidified the union.

In the face of tough opposition, students across universities on the East and the West coasts have formed a collective unity in spawning graduate workers struggles across the country, giving this movement a national appeal. The North American Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions offers a resource for graduate workers at both private and public universities to learn from each other’s tactics in organising and gaining recognition, winning strong contracts, and enforcing them.

“I guess what keeps us going is to see other universities follow suit, people tweeting about going to vote etc. We look at each other’s campaigns and learn from them. We went to rallies at Yale and Yale participated in ours,” says Hull.

“This clearly is a national movement. Just the number of schools that have cropped up asking for the same demand. Labor in the US is already weak, these small victories are working towards something bigger and building something concrete,” says Kushner.

Whether the demand for unionisation yields fruit or not, only time will tell. For now, the students of otherwise-liberal bastions of academia are trying to wrap their heads around the shockingly undemocratic behaviour of their universities while they continue to struggle for their basic democratic right endorsed by the courts.

Soumya Shankar is a MA Politics candidate at Columbia Journalism School, New York.