WASHINGTON—The National Labor Relations Board has certified Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110 as the union representing 3,000 graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants at Columbia University. In a 2-1 vote Dec. 18, the board rejected the university’s appeal of a regional administrator’s March decision that the December 2016 election in which graduate assistants voted 1,602-623 in favor of the union was valid. The university argued that the NLRB’s decision that voters didn’t have to present identification “in all likelihood allowed possibly numerous ineligible individuals to vote,” and with 647 ballots challenged, the election was close enough for “objectionable conduct” to have swayed the results.
With one Trump appointee recusing himself and the other not voting, the board dismissed those claims. The evidence the university presented, it said, showed that “inconsistent handling of voter-identification procedures potentially affected just four ballots at most,” in an election the union won by a 979-vote margin in a unit of over 4,000 eligible voters. The challenged ballots, it added, were “an insufficient number to affect the results.”
“In these circumstances, we find no reasonable doubt as to the fairness and validity of the election,” it concluded.
Outgoing NLRB chair Philip A. Miscimarra dissented, saying that the election should be rerun because of the inconsistencies in identification requirements had made it a “shambles.”
“After months of disingenuous delays by Columbia, we are excited to win certification of our union,” union activist Olga Brudastova, a Ph.D student and teaching assistant in civil engineering, said in a statement released by the UAW. “No more excuses. The Columbia administration needs to respect the law and start bargaining immediately.”
Local 2110 leaders “immediately requested that the administration fulfill its legal obligation to start good-faith negotiations for a contract,” the union said. If an agreement is reached, it added, it would cover the largest-ever group of unionized graduate assistants at a private university.
“We are evaluating the Board’s decision to determine our next steps,” a university spokesperson told LaborPress.
Six other university administrations—New York University, Cornell, The New School, American University, Brandeis, and Tufts—have agreed to bargain with graduate workers’ unions, the UAW said. The NLRB ruled in August 2016 that graduate assistants at private universities are employees and have the right to unionize, reversing a Bush II-era decision that they weren’t and couldn’t.
More than 2,500 Columbia graduate assistants have filled out bargaining surveys in preparation for contract negotiations, the union said. It has also launched a petition urging university presidents opposed to unionization—including Columbia’s Lee Bollinger and those of Harvard, the University of Missouri, and the University of Chicago—to recognize graduate unions on the grounds that they provide “real recourse” for women complaining about sexual assault and harassment, while universities’ current procedures “have too often failed to achieve justice and will likely become even weaker under the Trump/DeVos administration.”
“Columbia needs to wake up and get on the right side of history,” UAW Region 9A director Julie Kushner said. “After nearly three years of delays by Columbia, majority support for GWC-UAW is only growing and shows no sign of subsiding, especially in the era of Trump when a strong voice is so important on campus and in our broader communities.”