Below street level near the central campus of Columbia University, next to a door emblazoned with a warning about the boiler room inside, sits a door decorated with a small United Auto Workers sticker.

Inside the two-room office is the headquarters of Graduate Student Employees United, the UAW-backed group that is trying to form a union to represent teaching assistants at Columbia. If the unionizing campaign is successful, Columbia will become both the second private university in New York City with a TA union backed by the UAW Local 2110 and only the second private university in the United States with a TA union.

As the nation looks to Columbia and New York University to see what will happen next in the unfolding nationwide controversy over graduate student unionization, both the Yale administration and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which is trying to unionize Yale TAs, are watching the endeavors in New York particularly closely. Both sides are looking for precedent as they continue to be at odds about TA unionization in New Haven. Although there are many differences between Columbia and Yale, the activity at Columbia provides a model for what Yale may see in the near future as GESO continues its campaign.

Columbia is the first Ivy League institution other than Yale to have a serious unionizing campaign in its graduate school. But while GESO has been fighting for 10 years — through a grade strike and several victories and defeats — in some ways, Columbia has seen its campaign surpass GESO’s efforts in just one year.

As GESO continues its organizing campaign at Yale, Columbia’s Graduate Student Employees United filed suit March 28 with the National Labor Relations Board for a union election, having submitted the signatures of more than half of a proposed collective bargaining group.

The basics at Columbia

Gillian Lindt, acting dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia, sat in her office with her dog Caesar sleeping at her feet and talked about unionization in her school. Lindt was dean of Columbia’s Graduate School from 1983 to 1989, and has taken over this year as Columbia seeks a full-time dean.

She now vocally expresses her opposition to unionization in Columbia’s graduate school, although several years ago she said it seemed like the issue might never come up.

Back in 1988-89, Lindt was president of the Association of Graduate Schools. Although some public universities had formed TA unions since the first one began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, she said unionization was barely a blip on the screen for private institutions.

“The talk was this would never happen in a private university,” Lindt said.

The landscape has changed now, with New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee the first recognized union at a private university. The NYU group won an NLRB election, and the union and the university currently are negotiating a first contract.

At Columbia, meanwhile, a hearing Thursday with the local NLRB will attempt to hammer out some issues regarding the UAW’s petition for an official unionization vote.

The angling done by both sides before that hearing and before a potential general election provide a model for what might happen at Yale if GESO felt it had the support to call for an NLRB election. GESO has yet to take this step, although there is a large march planned for Friday in solidarity with the three other labor groups in the local Federation of Hospital and University Employees.

But before anything can proceed at Columbia, either, the two sides must meet in front of the NLRB.

The nitty-gritty

Lindt said Columbia plans first to challenge the assertion that teaching assistants and research assistants are employees and not simply students undergoing training.

Her argument, though, runs counter to the same local NLRB’s decision last year that TAs at NYU indeed are employees. The federal NLRB upheld the decision.

“[Columbia] can either argue that the facts are distinguishable from the facts at NYU,” or the university can challenge the initial ruling, said Celeste Mattina, regional director of the NLRB’s Manhattan office.

Lindt emphasized that last year’s decision broke almost 25 years of NLRB precedent, but Elbert Tellem, assistant to the regional NLRB director in Manhattan, said the previous precedent no longer stands.

“The NYU decision was issued by the board, and it presently is the law,” Tellem said.

The UAW will be using the same lawyers that won the case at NYU, and UAW organizer Christian Sweeney said he is confident the regional labor board will find the cases have much in common.

“The facts here at Columbia are remarkably similar to the facts at NYU,” Sweeney said. “The universities really don’t vary that much campus to campus.”

While Lindt challenged the idea that the schools present similar situations, Mattina said the NYU decision will carry a great deal of weight with the labor board.

“Obviously, the board gives serious consideration to a returning precedent,” Mattina said.

Even if the regional NLRB finds that the Columbia graduate students indeed are employees, there remains the difficult issue of deciding which graduate students constitute a potential bargaining unit.

At NYU, there was protracted wrangling over a group of science students the NLRB excluded from the bargaining unit because NYU administers their stipends differently, and the two sides still are examining whether the students should be part of the union.

And at Columbia, Lindt said she is upset because of the exclusion from the potential bargaining unit of students from three other areas of the university, including the medical and dental schools.

“It’s really all graduate students or none,” Lindt said.

But Sweeney said all other unions currently operating at Columbia have separate branches for the Morningside Heights central campus and the three disputed areas, all of which are far from Morningside. Eventually, the UAW even may try to unionize these other areas of the university.

Regardless of the solution to this debate, there still are questions about what the composition of any union would look like, at Columbia or at Yale. The issue of whether professional students who serve as TAs for classes would be in the union, for example, has yet to be resolved at either university.

Sweeney said Columbia’s unionizing group has attempted to follow the composition of a bargaining group set out by the NLRB in the NYU decision.

The NYU revolution

Lisa Jessup sat behind a desk amid stacks of boxes, eating a quick lunch of Chinese food out of the plastic lid of a rectangular take-out container, as she discussed the successful drive for a TA union at NYU. The UAW organizer, who is in the midst of moving offices, began working on the NYU campaign with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee three years ago. Before that, she had worked as an organizer in the publishing industry and even had spearheaded a union drive at the New York Association for New Americans, where she worked as an English as a second language teacher.

“It’s great,” Jessup said of the recent settlement — which came mere hours before the TAs voted on a possible strike — that brought NYU and the UAW together to the bargaining table in an attempt to negotiate their landmark first contract. “We’re not on strike, which is really good.”

The UAW has expanded from its industrial roots to include employees in a wide variety of white-collar jobs. Jessup addressed the role of the UAW in the growing national movement to unionize teaching assistants and research assistants at graduate schools, both public and private.

“The UAW is a fighting union,” Jessup said. “It’s really about expanding the kinds of workers who can form unions.”

NYU recognized the Graduate Student Organizing Committee as an official union after the two sides struck a deal wherein the graduate students agreed to negotiate only about non-academic issues, leaving alone issues like curriculum and admissions standards.

The UAW and representatives of the NYU administration just had their second meeting Monday as formalized negotiation is beginning. Both sides are still in the initial stages of presenting contract proposals.

Jessup said the union’s goals include childcare benefits, housing subsidies and full health-care coverage, but that there will be no contract until this fall at the earliest, since it takes a long time to negotiate a first collective bargaining contract.

Columbia union organizer John McMillian, a fourth-year history graduate student, said NYU provided a powerful precedent for his organization’s remarkably quick one-year journey from initiating a unionization drive to petitioning for an official union vote.

“All the experience at NYU really helped us out a lot,” McMillian said.

Birth of a union drive

McMillian appears in some ways to be a stereotypical labor organizer. He is writing his dissertation on protest movements in the 1960s, and after talking about the unionization campaign he was heading off for a meeting of the Socialist Scholar Conference.

At the same time, though, he emphasized that he does not see the organizing attempt as a radical or extremist movement.

The effort began in earnest last summer after McMillian and some friends in the history department went to a conference of graduate student unionizers that took place at NYU. The group joined forces with the UAW and quickly worked to expand from the history department.

“We’ve branched out into lots of other departments,” McMillian said. The labor group follows a decentralized model, so there is no chair or president of the organization.

Graduate Student Employees United formed partly in response to complaints about the high cost of living in New York City and concerns about the administration of stipends and other items, McMillian said, but he also said he feels that at least part of the motivation for many people is philosophical.

“I like the idea of being an engaged academic citizen,” McMillian said. “It’s a selfless act for a lot of us,” who will graduate before any contract ever exists, he added.

Sweeney said he sees unionization as a goal in and of itself, and that if unionization supporters were fighting for specific individual changes they would be signing petitions instead of attempting to unionize.

“The real goal is collective bargaining,” Sweeney said.

Carlos Aramayo GRD ’03, a GESO organizer, said Columbia’s rapidly successful organizing movement moved more quickly than Yale’s because of differences between the two schools.

“It’s the nature of their drive,” Aramayo said. “It’s great to see more schools, especially more private universities, getting unionized.”

The money comparison

The situation for graduate students at Columbia differs from the situation at Yale.

For one, all Yale students in doctoral programs receive fellowships that cover the cost of tuition and provide a stipend. About 25 percent of first-year students at Columbia, on the other hand, are responsible for paying tuition. Lindt said these students are scholars who are admitted with less impressive credentials and will receive fellowship support if they perform well academically and return for a second year of study.

Stipend levels for students with support at Columbia next year will stand at a minimum of $15,000, while the number at Yale will be $13,700, although the cost of living in New York City is higher.

Yale guarantees minimum stipend support standardized throughout the graduate school, while the students at Columbia still receive stipends based on when they were admitted, and thus students with more seniority sometimes receive less substantial stipends.

“Columbia is a very different place from Yale in how graduate education is configured,” Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield said.

But Columbia has been making improvements in the support it provides for graduate students. For example, under a plan launched in 1997, Columbia hopes to provide support for 90 percent of the incoming class by 2005-06 and has taken steps to standardize stipends within each class. McMillian said the moves toward better support are a reaction against the threat of unionization, but Lindt points to the plan’s launch date of 1997, before the idea of unionization really was on the horizon, as evidence to the contrary.

“It’s ironic that the unionization issue comes up at the very point where I at least see some very dramatic improvements,” Lindt said.

Dan Molden, a fourth-year psychology graduate student at Columbia who is opposed to unionization, said he feels he receives good support.

“We’re very well off right now,” Molden said, and he added that he felt a collective bargaining relationship would strain the relationship between faculty and graduate students.

But McMillian pointed to goals like childcare benefits, greater clarity in the appointment of TAs, and complete health-care coverage as goals a union can help reach.

Waiting at Yale

While efforts at Columbia continue, Yale still is playing the waiting game. GESO has been conducting a card campaign since before the end of first semester, but has yet to act concretely on any of the organizing. GESO can file suit for an NLRB union election if it has signed union cards from at least 30 percent of the potential bargaining unit. NLRB regional attorney Jonathan Kreisberg said GESO has not yet petitioned for an election.

Kreisberg also said the two unfair labor practice charges filed by GESO against Yale last year — one regarding e-mails sent by history professor Paul Kennedy and the other regarding an incident involving GESO publicity at the McDougal Graduate Student Center — are still under investigation. Kreisberg declined to give details about the investigations.

Although the organizing group at Columbia already has filed for an election, there are few indications of the campaign around the campus. In contrast to the events at NYU, which became more heated and involved the voices of more undergraduates as a strike crept closer, there are no sidewalk chalkings and the issue seems largely to be off the radar screen of undergraduates.

“A lot of undergraduates seem kind of unaware,” McMillian said. “There hasn’t been a lot of signage or anything like this.”

Jessup said undergraduates provided the NYU effort with a lot of help, but that typically a unionization campaign starts with a narrow focus.

“In the early stages of a union campaign, you focus on building your own membership,” Jessup said. “The undergraduates are very involved [at NYU]. But it’s really been a process.”

At Yale, the undergraduate Student Labor Action Coalition has made attempts to bring the issue of GESO to the attention of the general community of the University, and the issue has been prominent for more than 10 years rather than just one, as at Columbia.

But in that one year of rapid organization, Columbia graduate student organizers have put themselves in position to be waiting for a possible election as early as next fall.

Should the NLRB give the go-ahead for an election, Lindt said Columbia may appeal the decision to the federal NLRB. New President George W. Bush has the right to appoint three new members to the federal NLRB, Mattina said, but no one would speculate on how that might affect any board’s decision.

Sweeney, meanwhile, said the UAW and Graduate Student Employees United would continue to talk with students as a potential election approaches.

“We’re going to continue to organize. The support has been astounding,” Sweeney said. “It’s just a matter of talking to folks and making sure they know what the issues are.”

Yale and GESO will continue to watch the two New York schools as NYU tries to negotiate a landmark first contract and Columbia may provide a model for what an election could look like at an Ivy League school. But above all the dissension and the rhetoric on both sides of the increasingly high-profile national issue of graduate student unionization, Sweeney looked for common ground.

“We don’t disagree that Columbia’s a great place and that we want it to remain a great private university,” he said.

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