Columbia TAs, workers to vote on job action

Teaching and research assistants at Columbia University will vote this week on whether to hold a one-day work stoppage next week to protest the University’s appeal of last month’s graduate student union election. Columbia’s clerical workers will also vote on whether to hold a work stoppage in support of the Graduate Student Employees United, the group trying to unionize graduate students.

If the two groups vote in favor of the work stoppage, they will spend next Monday picketing rather than teaching, holding office hours or going to work.

The work stoppage is intended to protest the University’s decision to appeal a February National Labor Relations Board ruling that gave graduate students the right to hold a union election. The ballots from the election, which was held two weeks after the University filed an appeal, have been impounded and will not be tallied until after the NLRB rules on Columbia’s appeal.

Clerical workers, whose current contract prohibits job actions including work stoppages, may face disciplinary actions and lost wages if they choose to participate in the work stoppage, Columbia’s Assistant Vice President of Employee and Labor Relations David Cohen indicated in an e-mail sent to clerical workers Monday.

The dispute over the slowdown in the NLRB process comes as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale continues to ask the University to accept a card-count recognition procedure rather than the NLRB election process GESO deems flawed.

GESO Chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said the situation at Columbia demonstrates how the NLRB process allows long appeals and potential conflicts.

“To me its a real vindication of what we’ve been saying all along, which is that the NLRB process is very contentious and that a card-count neutrality agreement does present a real way of avoiding all that,” Seth said.

GSEU organizers said they hope the work stoppage will lead Columbia to agree to drop its appeal and allow ballots from the election to be counted.

“The appeal threatens to deprive teaching assistants and research assistants here and at private universities across the country of the right to vote on union representation,” said GSEU organizer Kim Phillips-Fein, a fourth-year graduate student. “We very much hope…that our action will show them that people here on this campus are willing to fight to protect these rights that TAs and RAs have won.”

But Columbia Associate Vice President Virgil Renzulli said the University would not change its position that graduate students are not workers, regardless of whether GSEU picketed.

“It is our position and it has been from the beginning that graduate students, whether they’re teaching assistants or research assistants, are students and not employees as covered by the National Labor Relations Act,” Renzulli said.

The graduate students and clerical workers are both organized under local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, but represent separate bargaining units. Each group will vote separately on whether to participate in the work stoppage.

An administrative aide at Columbia said that despite warnings of discipline for participating in a work stoppage, she would “absolutely” support the graduate students.

“We know that if everyone stands [together] we can do it,” the administrative assistant said. “One person alone cannot do it, but if everyone stands, we can do it.”

Alexsa Rosa, another administrative aide at Columbia, said she doubted that the University would actually take action against workers who participated in the work stoppage.

Cohen declined to comment on specific actions that might be taken against workers who participated in a work stoppage.

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