As Columbia Grad Students Announce Union Drive, UOregon Students Declare Victory in Strike

Kevin Solari December 12, 2014

As part of the recent wave of graduate student labor unrest, like this SUNY-Stony Brook action in 2009, students in Oregon settled a strike while students at Columbia announced a new organizing drive. (Jobs with Justice / Flickr)

The past few weeks have seen sig­nif­i­cant labor agi­ta­tion among grad­u­ate stu­dents. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, grad­u­ate stu­dents announced the end of their strike fought large­ly over sick leave, while Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents announced their own fight for union recognition.

On Decem­ber 2, three days before the end of fall semes­ter class­es, Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon grad­u­ate stu­dent instruc­tors walked off the job. It was the cul­mi­na­tion of a year of failed nega­tions between uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion and the Grad­u­ate Teach­ing Fel­lows Fed­er­a­tion (GTFF), which rep­re­sents the grad­u­ate instruc­tors, stretch­ing back to Novem­ber 2013.

Orga­niz­ing efforts among grad stu­dents began in the 1960s with the Teach­ing Assis­tants’ Asso­ci­a­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son being the first to be rec­og­nized as a bar­gain­ing unit. The GTFF at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon was formed in 1976 and has fought with uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion peri­od­i­cal­ly in the years since. The union has won major demands from the uni­ver­si­ty in the past, such as employ­er-paid health care in 1993, but the union had nev­er gone on strike.

In this year’s round of nego­ti­a­tions, the biggest stick­ing point between the union and the uni­ver­si­ty was paid sick leave. Under one of the university’s pro­pos­als dur­ing bar­gain­ing, union mem­bers received no amount of sick leave, although an instruc­tor miss­ing five or more days could apply for Fam­i­ly and Med­ical Leave, which allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The GTFF pro­pos­al asked for two weeks annu­al­ly of paid sick time for instructors.

The strike end­ed with a ten­ta­tive agree­ment that would cre­ate a $150,000 fund that mem­bers could use to cov­er lost wages as a result of leave for med­ical or parental leave, accord­ing to the Reg­is­ter Guard.

Every grad­u­ate stu­dent, regard­less of union mem­ber­ship, would be able to receive up to $1,000 for med­ical leave, and up to $1,500 for a new child’s birth, adop­tion or fos­ter placement.

The ten­ta­tive deal also gives GTFs a 5 per­cent pay raise for min­i­mum wages retroac­tive to Sept. 15, and anoth­er 5 per­cent pay increase next year. Depend­ing on senior­i­ty, GTFs cur­rent­ly receive at least $553 per month.

The strike came at the end of the semes­ter at the uni­ver­si­ty, throw­ing year-end grad­ing at the uni­ver­si­ty into chaos. Finals began on Decem­ber 8, but rough­ly a third of under­grad­u­ate cours­es are taught by the grad­u­ate instruc­tors now on strike. Ideas put forth by the UO Office of Aca­d­e­m­ic Affairs, first in a con­fi­den­tial memo, includ­ed refor­mat­ting final exams to be more eas­i­ly grad­ed or can­cel­ing exams all togeth­er and pro­vid­ing grades based only on work com­plet­ed before the strike. In response, the university’s fac­ul­ty sen­ate cas­ti­gat­ed this con­fi­den­tial memo, the secret process by which it was writ­ten, and the dilu­tion and degra­da­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic stan­dards it sug­gests.” The rec­om­men­da­tions, how­ev­er, were still pub­li­cized on the Aca­d­e­m­ic Affairs web­site as viable solutions.

The Unit­ed Aca­d­e­mics of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, which rep­re­sents full-time fac­ul­ty at the uni­ver­si­ty, called these mea­sures by UO an attempt to break the GTFF and not, as the admin­is­tra­tion insists, to main­tain aca­d­e­m­ic con­ti­nu­ity.’” It’s not the first attempt by the uni­ver­si­ty to cre­ate divi­sion with­in the ranks of the GTFF. In Octo­ber, the uni­ver­si­ty sug­gest­ed that inter­na­tion­al stu­dents who par­tic­i­pate in a strike could lose their visa sta­tus. Doing so would result in those stu­dents poten­tial­ly fac­ing depor­ta­tion. This threat was con­demned by the GTFF, which informed inter­na­tion­al stu­dents that they are still pro­tect­ed by law to engage in orga­niz­ing and strike activities.”

On the oppo­site coast, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty research and teach­ing assis­tants are look­ing to become only the sec­ond union­ized stu­dents at a pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty. Last year, New York Uni­ver­si­ty became the first (although it was tech­ni­cal­ly a sec­ond incar­na­tion of a union first orga­nized in 2000).

In 2000, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board ruled that NYU teach­ing assis­tants were also employ­ees of the uni­ver­si­ty, not just stu­dents at the school argued. After a 2004 rul­ing by the NLRB said Brown Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents could not orga­nize, and NYU stopped rec­og­niz­ing the union. The uni­ver­si­ty began work­ing again with the union in 2013, even though the 2004 deci­sion is still tech­ni­cal­ly in effect.

Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty teach­ing assis­tants are hop­ing their uni­ver­si­ty will also rec­og­nize their union despite not being legal­ly required. They have a lengthy list of things they hope to nego­ti­ate for, accord­ing to The New York­er, includ­ing low­er health-insur­ance costs … greater job secu­ri­ty, more reg­u­lar and pre­dictable pay­checks, and more gen­er­ous fam­i­ly-leave policies.”

Stu­dents at Colum­bia are not alone. A vic­to­ry in Morn­ing­side Heights could open the door for stu­dents at Yale who are also look­ing to orga­nize. Set­tling the debate, which has also extend­ed to North­west­ern University’s foot­ball pro­gram, could set the terms for years to come. 

Kevin is an edu­ca­tor and free­lance writer in Chica­go. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @kevinsolari_.
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