Ruling upholds right to unionize

A National Labor Relations Board ruling on Tuesday will likely allow teaching assistants at Columbia University, including some undergraduates, to vote whether to form a union.

The ruling that upholds the right of the TAs to unionize follows similar rulings at New York University and Brown University, and comes as Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization continues its lengthy effort to unionize.

Like the union at NYU, Columbia’s organizing group is affiliated with the United Auto Workers. NYU is the only private university in the country that has a TA union, and the decision allowing Brown to hold an election is being appealed to the federal labor board.

Beverly Gage ’94, a graduate student in Columbia’s History Department and a spokeswoman for the organizing group, said both sides might appeal the ruling of the NLRB regional director to the federal board.

Graduate Student Employees United wants the bargaining unit to be able to include more graduate students, and Columbia administrators may appeal because they still oppose unionization, Gage said.

No date for the election is scheduled yet, and appeals may delay the vote.

GESO chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said she views the decision as a positive step.

“I would hope the administration is looking at what’s going on at other peer institutions and would say OK, it’s time to sit down and talk with GESO and come to some kind of agreement,’” she said.

The administration at Yale has repeatedly stated its opposition to TA unionization. Yale Provost Alison Richard, the University’s chief academic and financial officer, said it is unclear how the NLRB decision will affect the situation at Yale.

“It’s complex,” Richard said. “We’re studying the ruling.”

In a statement, Columbia President George Rupp said he felt the circumstances at NYU that led to unionization are not the same as those at Columbia. He also said he believes unionization sends the message that graduate students are employees of the university.

“Our student teaching and research assistants are first and foremost students whose teaching and research are an integral part of their educational programs,” Rupp said.

Gage disagreed with Rupp.

“We’re thrilled that the labor board rejected Columbia’s argument that we’re not employees and has affirmed that, as we know, we do work for the university,” Gage said.

But not all Columbia graduate students viewed the ruling in such a positive light.

Sarah Shuwairi, a second-year graduate student in psychology, and one of the leaders of Columbia Graduate Students Against Unionization, said there are a number of reasons for which many graduate students disagree with unionization.

“My role as a graduate student includes learning how to teach,” Shuwairi said. “It’s part of life; it’s part of what I need to do. I don’t call myself a part-time housekeeper for keeping my house clean.”

She added that she also does not want to pay union dues to the UAW.

The ruling said undergraduate TAs, who are found mostly in the computer science and engineering departments, also can vote in a union election at Columbia.

Evan Mayo-Wilson, a Columbia junior who has conducted office hours and graded exams as a TA for an introductory psychology class, said he believes undergraduate TAs play a less significant role than graduate student TAs.

“I can’t imagine that the amount of time that any undergraduate can commit would ever translate into health care benefits or anything like that,” Mayo-Wilson said.

Gage said she is confident that this ruling will influence the situation at Yale.

“The steam is picking up. I feel sure it will happen at Yale,” Gage said. “We’ve all taken a lot of strength and inspiration from up there because they were a real pioneering effort.”

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