Columbia TAs, RAs strike for union

Chanting “Columbia works because we do,” hundreds of graduate students, clerical workers and union supporters rallied outside the main gates of Columbia University during a one-day strike Monday to protest the university’s appeal of a March graduate student union election.

But Columbia Associate Vice President Virgil Renzulli said Columbia will not drop its appeal, and a union organizer said the union would continue to pressure the university to recognize the election — possibly through future work stoppages.

Renzulli said he did not know how many classes had been cancelled, but said 280 classes including discussion sections are led by teaching assistants. He minimized the amount of disruption on campus from the strike, and noted that the number of people who showed up to protest represented only a fraction of the 1,900 graduate students and 800 clerical workers.

The one-day strike came as Columbia graduate students continue efforts to become the second graduate student union at a private university in the country. Graduate Student Employees United, the group trying to unionize, filed for a National Labor Relations Board election last year and held one in March after an NLRB ruling declared Columbia TAs and research assistants employees.

Columbia officials filed an appeal after the election was held, however, and the ballots of nearly 1,510 will not be counted until the appeal concludes.

The strike also comes as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale continues its 12-year unionization effort. At Yale, though, GESO has called for recognition through means other than the NLRB process, which GESO leaders say is plagued with delays and intimidation.

Despite the strike, Renzuli said Columbia would not withdraw its appeal.

“We think this is a fundamental matter of principle,” Renzulli said.

“These people are not recruited to be employees. They are here as students and secondarily they perform functions of teaching or research and are paid for that, but that does not make them primarily employees.”

Greg Vargo, a Columbia graduate student on the GSEU organizing committee, said the group did not expect the University to drop the appeal immediately. But he said he hoped continued pressure would influence administrators to rethink their position on the issue of unionization.

“They say we’re not employees, that we don’t provide a service in the University,” Vargo said Tuesday, his voice hoarse from the rally. “This strike sends a message about what this university would look like if we did no work.”

Throughout the day, TAs and RAs did not hold office hours and cancelled nearly three quarters of scheduled freshman composition classes, Vargo said.

Vargo said he cancelled his English classes for the day, but added that his students were largely supportive of the graduate students’ efforts to unionize.

Some clerical workers, who are part of the same local that graduate students are hoping to organize under, also participated in the strike — the first time organized workers have struck to support graduate students on a private campus. Many more who did attend work joined the rally during their lunch break, Renzulli said.

Renzulli said any classes missed will be rescheduled, and that clerical workers who struck would be docked pay for the day, since their current contracts prohibit job actions.

Comments