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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Columbia Plans to Commit Unfair Labor Practice in Hopes of Denying Graduate Student Workers Their Labor Rights

Yesterday Columbia University Provost John Coatesworth announced that the University was refusing to bargain in with the Graduate Workers of Columbia  (the union for teaching and research assistants) despite the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board that Columbia graduate workers were entitled to collective bargaining through their chosen representative.  Although the University characterizes this decision as simply acting on its "right to have the status of graduate student assistants reviewed by a United States Court of Appeals" in reality it is choosing to engage in an unfair labor practice and daring the union to sue it. As with the longer history of the University's employment of labor-busting law firms to stretch out the certification process, Columbia appears determined to take advantage of President Trump's election in order to find a legal venue hostile to labor.

The hypocrisy of Columbia is overwhelming.  Columbia's President Lee Bollinger is a renowned scholar of the First Amendment and Columbia trumpets its commitments to the notions of free debate and the force of reasoned argument.  But apparently they are only committed to these principles when it will not cost them control over their graduate student laborers.  Both the University and the Union have debated these issues for years and the graduate students have voted that they want representation.  Columbia has refused to accept that it lost the argument when graduate students overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionizing.  Columbia--like so many of its peers--claims that a union would constitute a "third party between student and teacher." But it has not hesitated in seeking out external law firms to fight the unionization.

More importantly, the issue of unionization is not concerned with the relationship between teachers and graduate students as students.  It is concerned with the relationship between university management and graduate student workers as employees.  By implying that the issue is about relationships of teaching Columbia's management has misrepresented the situation--what the graduate students are demanding is the right to bargain over employment conditions not over their activities as students.

Since Columbia's intellectual and academic arguments are very weak it appears that ultimately this is about power.  The Columbia administration's decision to hoard theirs in clear contradiction to both the NLRB and the expressed will of their graduate student workers.  Like their fellows at the University of Chicago and Yale, to name only two, they are behaving much like feudal aristocrats have always done when faced with a challenge to their authority--by claiming that they are only concerned with maintaining personal relationships.  But what that really means are paternalistic relationships in which subordination is key.

It is important to recognize that the threat to academic freedom and learning does not come from graduate student unions but from overweening managerial authority.  I have taught in universities with unionized graduate students for nearly three decades and have not once had the union interfere with a genuinely pedagogical question.  I have, however, seen unions support graduate student employees in preventing their employment by the university overwhelm their capacity to fulfill their jobs on the one hand and pursue their studies on the other.  But as we can see more generally with the consistent decision by university managers to impose precarious working conditions on more and more of their labor force, management is not in fact thinking about either academic freedom or the relationship between teachers and students.  Its concerns lie elsewhere. 

Columbia's administration should be ashamed of itself.


California Policy Issues said...

It probably won't turn out to be an unfair labor practice under the newly-composed NLRB. However, even if the NLRB rules that grad student workers are not protected "employees," such a ruling does not prevent Columbia U or any private-sector university from voluntarily recognizing the union. The ruling would simply mean that there is no legal obligation to do so.

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