How Graduate Unions Are Winning—and Scaring the Hell out of Bosses—in the Trump Era

Daniel Moattar November 29, 2018

(GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia/Facebook)

In a 1,035 to 720 vote, Colum­bia University’s grad­u­ate stu­dent union has agreed to a bar­gain­ing frame­work with the university’s admin­is­tra­tion, a mile­stone vic­to­ry in the union’s near­ly five-year cam­paign for recog­ni­tion. The vote out­come, announced ear­li­er this week, fol­lows Columbia’s Novem­ber 19 announce­ment that it would bar­gain with the union, end­ing long-stand­ing efforts to halt grad­u­ate union­iza­tion on cam­pus and in the courts.

Columbia’s deci­sion is the lat­est — and one of the most notable — in a string of con­ces­sions by uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors at pri­vate insti­tu­tions across the coun­try. It’s a wave of labor action that belongs to the Trump era: The NLRB’s Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty rul­ing, extend­ing bar­gain­ing rights to grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, was issued in August 2016, just before Trump won the elec­toral col­lege. Grad­u­ate unions have spread quick­ly in the two years since.

In August, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty won major wage and ben­e­fits gains through Spring 2021. In Sep­tem­ber, Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate work­ers secured the first con­tracts depen­dent on the Colum­bia deci­sion, with improve­ments includ­ing pay rais­es, work­place pro­tec­tions and an offi­cial say in some cam­pus decision-making.

In Octo­ber, grad­u­ate instruc­tors at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go — where adjuncts won their first union con­tract fol­low­ing an April strike — inter­rupt­ed a uni­ver­si­ty bud­get meet­ing to demand legal recog­ni­tion. Soon after, grad­u­ate instruc­tors at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go staged a cam­pus walk­out, win­ning sup­port from may­oral can­di­dates Toni Preck­win­kle and Lori Light­foot. Strong majori­ties at both schools vot­ed for unionization.

This month, grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty vot­ed five-to-one to union­ize. And union wins at Colum­bia and Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, key sites in the legal bat­tle over pri­vate-uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate unions, brought the bat­tle full cir­cle. For grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate insti­tu­tions, this polit­i­cal moment was made pos­si­ble in part by Columbia’s union, which went before the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) in a bid to over­turn the 2004 Brown rul­ing.

In that case, an ear­li­er grad­u­ate union at Brown faced legal chal­lenges from Brown admin­is­tra­tors — par­tic­u­lar­ly then-provost Robert J. Zim­mer, now pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. The NLRB held in Brown that a pri­vate institution’s stu­dents couldn’t dou­ble as employ­ees for the NLRB’s pur­pos­es, regard­less of the work they car­ried out.

From strik­ing to bargaining

In 2016, Columbia’s grad­u­ate employ­ee union came before the NLRB, which over­turned Brown and restored grad­u­ate instruc­tors’ and researchers’ labor pro­tec­tions. Colum­bia ini­tial­ly refused to abide by the rul­ing, issu­ing a state­ment in Jan­u­ary declar­ing its intent to seek review of the sta­tus of stu­dent assis­tants by a fed­er­al appel­late court.” For that case to be heard, the union would have had to allege an unfair labor prac­tice — a com­plaint Colum­bia could appeal. Instead, the union chose to strike.

I think they would have pre­ferred that we file an unfair labor prac­tice,” Kate McIn­tyre, a union orga­niz­er and doc­tor­al stu­dent in Columbia’s Eng­lish depart­ment, told In These Times. It’s a wait­ing game: They think that if enough of us grad­u­ate, the union cam­paign will peter out. And I think they under­stand that it’s to their ben­e­fit that the courts are becom­ing more con­ser­v­a­tive under Trump.”

Columbia’s grad­u­ate employ­ee union held a week­long strike in April, with prepa­ra­tions for a longer, open-end­ed strike in the fall. But after the April strike, and a pro-union vote by post­doc­tor­al researchers in Octo­ber, the uni­ver­si­ty reversed its stance and agreed to bar­gain. McIn­tyre said post­docs’ strong pro-union vote took admin­is­tra­tors by surprise.

They have a lot of mon­ey and they’re able to afford slick­er web­sites, but the fact is that they’ve con­sis­tent­ly been los­ing the P.R. bat­tle,” she said of the uni­ver­si­ty. Every time the provost would send out an anti-union email, we would gain sup­port. When they were argu­ing about whether we were work­ers, it was an argu­ment that was so patent­ly untrue.”

I nev­er thought I was some­one who would be orga­niz­ing strikes,” said Noah Rauschkolb, a PhD can­di­date in mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing. The ways that the uni­ver­si­ty has act­ed have made peo­ple who were orig­i­nal­ly sus­pi­cious about the union far more frus­trat­ed with the university.”

When I start­ed, I was treat­ed like any oth­er employ­ee,” Rauschkolb told In These Times. I had clear tasks, I had a huge job to do. It was very sim­i­lar to any oth­er project man­age­ment job I’d had before. The audac­i­ty of an admin­is­tra­tion telling me no, I’m not real­ly a work­er — the peo­ple who are in labs 12 hours a day bust­ing their ass­es, that’s not their reality.”

With the bar­gain­ing frame­work in place, Columbia’s grad­u­ate instruc­tors and researchers are due to begin nego­ti­a­tions in Feb­ru­ary 2019. McIn­tyre says their pri­or­i­ties include den­tal and vision care, robust sex­u­al harass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­vi­sions, on-time pay and expand­ed parental sup­port. Brown’s work­ers, accord­ing to grad­u­ate orga­niz­er Jeff Feld­man, are seek­ing many of the same ben­e­fits and protections.

Fight­ing the cor­po­rate university 

Admin­is­tra­tors at both uni­ver­si­ties, along with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, Yale Uni­ver­si­ty and oth­ers, have retained Proskauer Rose, one of the nation’s pre­em­i­nent employ­er-side” labor law firms, to com­bat grad­u­ate union­iza­tion efforts. (In August, Proskauer reached a con­fi­den­tial set­tle­ment in a $50 mil­lion law­suit alleg­ing per­va­sive gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion at its offices.)

The fir­m’s ser­vices are not cheap. Proskauer’s senior attor­neys typ­i­cal­ly bill hourly rates in excess of $1,000. More junior attor­neys can com­mand almost $800 per hour. Its clients receive six-fig­ure month­ly bills. Most pri­vate insti­tu­tions union­iz­ing under the Colum­bia deci­sion enroll a few thou­sand grad­u­ate stu­dents cam­paign­ing for mod­est rais­es and benefits.

I don’t think that the finances explain it,” said Risa Lieber­witz, pro­fes­sor of labor and employ­ment law at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. I believe it is an ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tion that oppos­es union­iza­tion because union­iza­tion shifts a sig­nif­i­cant amount of pow­er col­lec­tive­ly to the peo­ple organizing.”

Lieber­witz also serves as gen­er­al coun­sel for the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sors (AAUP), which wrote an ami­cus brief in the Colum­bia case. More and more,” she told In These Times, we see the growth in the ranks of admin­is­tra­tors, the shrink­ing of the ranks of tenured- and tenure-track fac­ul­ty, and a lot of the shift­ing of the work of fac­ul­ty to TAs [teach­ing assis­tants] and RAs [research assistants].”

Those bud­getary and labor shifts, Lieber­witz said, have made grad­u­ate stu­dents and adjuncts a body of very low-wage employ­ees” — at insti­tu­tions whose senior admin­is­tra­tors are among the best-paid uni­ver­si­ty staff in the world.

It seems like there’s strug­gle with­in the uni­ver­si­ty about who gets to have a say and who gets to con­trol it,” said Feld­man, the orga­niz­er at Brown. I think they’re con­cerned about ced­ing any pow­er or con­trol to grad stu­dent work­ers, and to work­ers in general.”

Elite pri­vate insti­tu­tions like Colum­bia and Brown are rel­a­tive­ly small. Union dri­ves on their cam­pus­es reach only a frac­tion of U.S. uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents. But their suc­cess­es, and the pricey efforts uni­ver­si­ties mount to oppose them, are sig­nif­i­cant. In just two years, almost entire­ly under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, small groups of young orga­niz­ers have shift­ed the cen­ter of pow­er at what are some of America’s wealth­i­est — and most polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed — non-prof­it corporations.

Union­iza­tion can be very help­ful in this era of cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion,” said Lieber­witz, to bring in a more demo­c­ra­t­ic voice from the peo­ple who are work­ing as edu­ca­tors and as researchers.”

At Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, whose endow­ment is larg­er than the com­bined GDPs of Afghanistan and Haiti, a grad­u­ate union dri­ve demand­ing ben­e­fits like den­tal insur­ance has met almost three decades of tooth-and-claw oppo­si­tion. Columbia’s $11 bil­lion endow­ment — the uni­ver­si­ty is New York City’s largest pri­vate landown­er — gen­er­ates an enor­mous oper­at­ing income.

For any larg­er struc­tur­al changes, they will sim­ply say that it isn’t pos­si­ble, that there aren’t the resources,” said McIn­tyre, the Colum­bia orga­niz­er. A con­tract first forces Colum­bia to share infor­ma­tion with us about what those resources actu­al­ly are, and then allows us to insist on issues rather hav­ing to accept what they offer us.”

At Brown, Feld­man said, Many of us on the cam­paign found that, in addi­tion to all the mate­r­i­al [gains] a union can bring, the sol­i­dar­i­ty that emerges from it can go a long way to build­ing a more humane and hab­it­able uni­ver­si­ty where we have a voice.”

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