The TAs and RAs at Columbia University are organizing a union—again.
In the early 2000s, we fought to get union recognition at Columbia after GSOC/UAW got a contract at NYU. I worked with the Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU/UAW) campaign for 4 years, and during that time, we signed a majority of TAs and RAs onto union cards every single semester. We held—and are confident we won—a union election in 2002, and when the university took us to court to impound the ballots, we held a month-long strike to pressure them to allow the votes to be counted. Columbia President Lee Bollinger refused, and that same year, the National Labor Relations Board—a federal body appointed by then President George W. Bush— denied grad employees the right to form a union in the Brown University case (2004).
You can read all about the history of the NYU and Columbia (and Brown, Yale, and Cornell) campaigns in a slew of articles and opinion pieces. This post is about the links between academic organizing—then and now—and what we do in the Material Collective.
So, why should a union campaign that happened over a decade ago matter now? Because GWC/UAW—the new union for TAs and RAs at Columbia is facing exactly the same obstacles. The University Administration (still under President Lee Bollinger) is very likely to use the identical union-busting tactics now that they did 15 years ago. If the regional NLRB rules that Columbia’s grad workers can hold a union election, you will probably see the Admin pulling out all the stops to scare and intimidate folks into voting no. They’ll do things like pitting science RAs against humanities TAs, scaring international students with rumors about losing visas, and circulating the myth that UAW Local 2110 is an “outsider” organization that will control the decision making. It’s all lies, of course.
TA and RA unions have existed in public universities since the late ‘60s, thousands of international student workers across the country are union members, and support staff at Columbia have been represented by UAW Local 2110 for decades. (Read an interview with 2110’s president, Maida Rosenstein here) In the 80s, the union won a five year fight against Columbia to gain recognition, and 2110 has really taken the lead in organizing women, intellectual workers at places like MOMA and the Village Voice, and non-profit workers who have never had a union before.
And besides, any union contract is generated through a democratic process and negotiated by members with the help and guidance of experienced union staff. No one is going to force a TA or RA to put anything into the contract that they don’t want there.
So, it’s fantastic that GWC/UAW is taking up the baton, and even better that contingent faculty at Barnard College are also organizing. Adjunct faculty at NYU and the New School already have union contracts, and of course, the CUNY system is represented by PSC/CUNY.
Perhaps even more importantly, with an Obama-appointed NLRB, we have a real shot at overturning the 2004 Brown Decision.
Get this: the Brown Decision—and Columbia, Yale, and Cornell Universities—have all made the legal argument that what TAs and RAs do isn’t work. All that grading, late nights in the lab, teaching discussion sections, tutoring students—that’s all part of your “apprenticeship” to train you for your cushy, tenured faculty job. Riiiiiggghht.
So, we need all the kinds of community we can create. As Rachel Dressler put it in her recent post, “How much richer our work can be if done in a spirit of collaboration and sharing.” Right on. And, sticking together is perhaps the only way we’re going to make a dent in the corporatization of the modern American University. If our institutions continue to rely on cheap labor in the form of grad students and contingent faculty, there will never be more full-time faculty positions. If we continue to isolate ourselves in our labs and our library carrels, we’ll never know that others across our campuses are experiencing the same cutbacks and loss of shared governance. We need to take our universities back in every way we can, and we need to VOTE UNION YES every chance we get!