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Columbia Challenges Graduate Assistants’ Union Vote

December 22, 2016 
By Steven Wishnia

New York,, NY – One week after graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University voted overwhelmingly for a union, the university filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board challenging the election’s validity.

The petition, filed Dec. 16, asks the NLRB to void the election, in which graduate assistants voted by a 1,602-623 margin for Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110, and schedule a new vote “in an atmosphere free from improper conduct.”

The university’s allegations are “not only frivolous, but designed to delay and frustrate the will of the majority,” United Auto Workers Region 9A President Julie Kushner told LaborPress. “None of the objections, even if they were true, could have possibly made an impact on the outcome.”

The university charges that voters were intimidated by the presence of “known union agents” standing and shooting video near the polling place on the main Morningside Heights campus; that the NLRB’s decision that voters didn’t have to present identification “in all likelihood allowed possibly numerous ineligible individuals to vote”; and that the election was further tainted by NLRB temporarily closing the polls at Columbia University Medical Center after they ran out of envelopes for challenged ballots. It argues that the number of yes votes exceeded the combined total of no votes and challenged ballots by only 332, close enough for the “objectionable conduct” to have swayed the results.

For that argument to be valid, Local 2110 noted, every single one of the more than 600 people who cast challenged ballots would have had to have voted against unionization, “an extremely unlikely scenario, given the unusually large yes vote among eligible voters.” The challenged ballots, it said, came from “individuals the University itself left off of its eligibility list.”

The allegation that union members shooting video intimidated voters is “misinformation,” Local 2110 organizer Olga Brudastova, a Ph.D. student and researcher in civil engineering, told LaborPress. The two people filming were actually students doing a class project on the vote and had no connection to the union, she says.

“We have no comment about various post-election allegations,” a university spokesperson said. “Our objections were filed with the NLRB as part of its established procedure for determining whether the conduct of the election was appropriate. We share the NLRB’s goal of ensuring a fair electoral process and protecting the rights of all students.”

The union campaign was enabled by an NLRB decision in August that students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize, because they do paid work supervised by the university. “I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories,” Provost John H. Coatsworth responded in a letter to the university community after it. Unlike university employees, he contended, graduate assistants are working “first and foremost” to learn how to be scholars and teachers.

“What we do is work,” Brudastova replies, saying that not recognizing that doesn’t “respect us as workers and as people who contribute to the mission and values of the university.” Graduate assistants have no power to negotiate health benefits or scheduling, she says, time off is “nonexistent or determined on a personal basis,” and “late payment is a surprisingly big issue.” Her own stipend was two months late in her first semester and three months late in her second, and she knows someone who had to wait nine months for theirs.

The union collected 1,000 signatures within 24 hours on a petition urging the university to accept the results of the vote, she adds.

One fear, however, is that if the challenge delays a contract agreement long enough, the Trump administration might pack the NLRB enough to reverse the August decision that graduate assistants have the right to collective bargaining. That decision, which went 3-1 along party lines, reversed the board’s 2004 ruling that graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees. With two of the five seats now vacant, Donald Trump would be able to give the board a 3-2 Republican majority when he takes office in January.

Kushner doesn’t believe that Columbia is waiting for that. “It’s the standard, typical employer’s delaying tactics,” she says. On the other hand, with Trump becoming President despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million, “now more than ever, people want to have confidence in elections,” she adds. The university should “recognize the union, recognize the democratic process, and come to the bargaining table.”

December 22, 2016

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