Graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University went to the polls on Wednesday and Thursday this week, casting their votes to decide whether to unionize.
The election, one of only a few among private universities, was scheduled by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in a landmark case in August that graduate students at Columbia are employees and have the right to unionize. While Yale graduate students await a decision from the NLRB whether they can hold their own union election, Columbia becomes the second private university after Harvard to vote on this issue.
Though the results of a November election at Harvard is not yet known — around 1,000 contested ballots have stalled the process — members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia University said they were confident that contested ballots will not impede vote counting at Columbia and hope to hear the election results later today. A union victory would give the graduate students bargaining rights with the university and would make Columbia the second university, along with New York University, with a recognized graduate student union.
“It feels amazing,” said Olga Brudastova, a third-year Columbia graduate student and physics research assistant. “It really is the culmination of two, three years of hard work, so it feels great to think that we’re going to finally see, hopefully, a decisive step forward.”
This August, the NLRB agreed to reconsider the issue of graduate student unionization after a petition was filed in 2015 by a group of Columbia graduate students. While this ruling applied to all private universities in the United States, including Yale, it had particular significance for Columbia.
According to several members of Columbia’s unofficial union, there has been a high level of engagement and debate from the student body regarding this issue. Students described a campus atmosphere of anticipation on Wednesday and Thursday with lines forming outside the polling stations, which suggested a high student turnout. Four different polling locations across Columbia were open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. during the two-day vote.
While graduate students at Columbia await the results of their election, Yale graduate students continue to grapple with the issue, though the unofficial union at Yale has taken a novel department-by-department path toward unionization.
Local 33, the unofficial graduate student union formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, opted this fall to file for union elections in 10 individual departments. That number has dropped to nine after the Comparative Literature department withdrew its petition and makes up only a fraction of the 74 departments in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
After Yale contested Local 33’s strategy in labor court, both sides are awaiting the verdict of NLRB Regional Director John Walsh. At Columbia, the election involved a greater portion of the university, with all Columbia teaching and research assistants in the graduate and undergraduate schools given an opportunity to cast their ballots.
“Grad employees at universities across the country are mobilizing to form their unions, from Cornell, to Harvard, to Duke, to Columbia and beyond,” said Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18. “We’re excited that our colleagues at Columbia got to vote this week, and we’re looking forward to our own vote soon!”
The approach taken by Local 33 has caused pushback not only from the Yale administration, but also from many graduate students. The Graduate Student Assembly, though continuing to remain neutral on the topic of unionization in general, voted on Oct. 2 by a wide margin to oppose Local 33’s department-by-department approach, one that many viewed as unfairly exclusionary to other departments.
By comparison, at Columbia an active effort was made by the school’s unofficial union to include all eligible teaching and research assistants in the election process. As a result of these inclusion efforts at Columbia, the NLRB established an “eligibility formula” after its August ruling for voting in the Columbia election, which includes not just current employees but also people who worked in the previous academic year.
“We really felt that we would be stronger the more people got involved in this decision,” Brudastova said. “From the start we wanted to go with as broad an approach as possible, and we wanted the maximum number to be able to have a say.”
Local 33 has received criticism, not only for its departmental approach, but also for its recruitment tactics, which some graduate students have called overly aggressive. Meanwhile, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator, the debate in New York has centered around issues like striking, the payment of union dues and the role of TAs and RAs within the university.
In advance of the vote, high-profile political figures like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) expressed support last week for unionization at Columbia.
“I believe … that the stability and predictability of a union contract will enable you to focus more of your energy on the critical research and teaching work that makes Columbia a world-renowned university,” de Blasio said in a letter to Columbia on Nov. 30th.
Yale has roughly 2,800 graduate students, and Columbia has around 3,500.