Four days have passed since the Graduate Student Employees United of Columbia began a strike that will continue indefinitely. In the past few years, there has been a growing movement of academic unionization at independent universities, and tension has finally come to a head at Columbia.
With graduate students no longer teaching classes, leading discussion sections or grading work, the strike has enormously influenced undergraduate education. Though classes are canceled, work is still due, and with finals approaching, it is unclear who will grade papers and tests.
Two years ago, Columbia University graduate students voted on the possibility of unionization after the National Labor Relations Board ruled they were university employees. Due to a legal appeal of the NLRB’s decision by the university administration, the results of the vote have not yet been released. GSEU believes that the votes would show an overwhelming desire for unionization and that they deserve to air their views to the administration, said GSEU member Kate Isard, a sixth-year graduate student in the art history department.
At Columbia, a significant portion of undergraduate classes are taught by graduate teaching assistants, Isard said. Classes that meet the requirements of Columbia’s core curriculum are disproportionately taught by graduate students, said Columbia sophomore Jacob McKean, who organized an undergraduate walkout in support of GSEU.
Marc Tracy, a Columbia freshman, noted the power GSEU holds in striking as finals approach. He cannot see how his economics professor, who teaches 200 freshmen, will grade all the exams he must give himself, Tracy said.
The strike will also affect professors with smaller classes. English professor Bruce Robbins said he will miss the two TAs for his 90-student class when finals come.
“Two out of two TAs are on strike,” Robbins said. “I don’t know how the grading is going to be done.”
To solve the problem of the graduate student shortage, the administration has sent in paid replacements, Isard and McKean said.
While graduate students have shown up by the hundreds to picket, some graduate students refuse to support GSEU and the unionization cause. One professor, who declined to be named, said six of his seven TA’s are striking, and he believes this unfairly advantages the students whose section is still meeting.
The strike has placed significant strain on undergraduate academics, but there is still much campus support for the graduate student cause. McKean said the walkout he organized drew around 150 undergraduates. He said he led a spontaneous walk out on the same day when a replacement for a graduate teacher told students upset by her presence that they would receive better grades from her than they had from their original teacher.
Some professors are also supporting GSEU and siding with the graduate students over the administration.
“Relations between graduate students and professors are great,” Robbins said. “The feeling is pro-student and we want what is best for the students.”
Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization supports GSEU, members said. GESO went on strike in March 2003 along with unions that represent Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers, but is currently working with the administration on reforms, GESO Chair Mary Reynolds said.
New York University is the only private educational institution in the nation with unionized graduate students.