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USA : Graduate Workers Union petition for union recognition dismissed

The New York Region chapter of the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a petition for union recognition from the Graduate Workers of Columbia on Feb. 6, Capital New York reported Tuesday.

But the GWC leadership said it had anticipated the decision and plans to appeal with the national-level NLRB.

The petition asked that the regional NLRB give graduate students that are employed by the University the right to engage in collective bargaining by overturning a 2004 decision made by the national board that said that Brown University graduate students do not have the right to unionize.

“This is really a question about bureaucratic process,” Paul Katz, a second-year history student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and an organizer of the graduate workers’ movement, said. “But there are people here on campus and certainly people beyond it who want to use this for political reasons—who want to say, ‘this is a dismissal’—that’s a word that gets people fired up.”

The dismissal was unsurprising, Katz said, given the precedent set by the George W. Bush-appointed NLRB in the 2004 Brown University decision, which said that graduate workers were “primarily students” and therefore could not unionize, but Katz said that he thought the now Obama-appointed national organization is more likely to overturn the Brown decision.

“It’s a frustrating turn of events because it slows this down, but it is completely expected and does not derail anything,” Katz said.“This is just about process—it’s not really substantively meaningful.”

Katz expects the process with the NLRB to be a longer-term, “protracted kind of fight.” In the meantime, GWC organizers hope to strengthen the union’s presence on campus even without legal recognition.

“Beyond the terms of the union itself, when grad students are organized we have ways to collectively lend our voice to things we care about,” he said, citing stipends and parental leave as causes for graduate workers to champion.  

A Columbia spokesperson said in a statement sent to both Spectator and Capital New York that they do not support the idea of graduate students having collective bargaining rights.  

“We fully understand that pursuing a Ph.D. is a highly challenging path, both intellectually and personally. Our graduate students are scholars-in-training whose teaching and research are an integral part of their doctoral studies,” the statement said. “As the NLRB found in the Brown University case, we believe that treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience. Our concern is that the unique academic program—and collaboration with faculty mentors—that each individual student develops in graduate school are unlike a typical employer-employee relationship, and are not well-served by a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining process.”

Katz says it would be incorrect to characterize the dismissal as a fatal blow to unionization efforts.

“To say that unionization isn’t going to work for RAs and TAs here at Columbia—I think that is an intentional misreading of this administrative decision.”

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