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April 25, 2018

Columbia University Students Strike for Graduate Union Recognition

NEW YORK—After a deadline for negotiations between Columbia University and the union that represents graduate student workers there expired on Tuesday, hundreds of graduate students staged a walkout, the first action of a weeklong strike. In December 2016, Columbia University graduate students voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers union. Columbia University has not validated the results of that election and, in March 2017, filed an objection with the National Labor Relations Board.

David W. Chen reports for the New York Timesthat the strike is timed for maximum impact, with classes at Columbia scheduled to conclude at the end of the month. In tandem with pursuing degrees, graduate students at Columbia are employed by the university as teaching and research assistants and provide crucial services in administering undergraduate exams and grading papers. Tania Bhattachryya, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in history and union organizer told the Timesthat “the university basically runs on our labor, and we want the recognition.”

In August 2016, the NLRB recognized the right of graduate students employed as research and teaching assistant by private universities to unionize. Unionization efforts have since been successful at many prominent universities, including Yale, Cornell, the University of Chicago, and, most recently, Harvard. Universities have fought recognizing graduate student unions by citing research and teaching assistants’ primary status as students, and the NLRB has reversed its decision several times in the last twenty years, depending on the political affiliation of its members.

“We respect the rights of students to express their views and the rights of all students and faculty to continue their teaching, learning and progress toward degrees,” Columbia spokeswoman Caroline Adelman said. “We do not understand why the GWC-UAW prefers pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, nonpartisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.” Graduate student union advocates at Columbia have argued that the university has purposefully delayed negotiations to have the unionization vote invalidated by an NLRB controlled by the Trump administration.

According to a report by Eli Lee for the Columbia Spectator, dozens of classes were cancelled or moved off campus in solidarity with striking graduate student workers. GWC-AUW also provided a week’s notice of the disruption so that undergraduate students could prepare. Demonstrations are expected to continue through April 30.

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