More than a year after graduate students at Columbia University voted to unionize with the United Automobile Workers, hundreds ofstudents participated in a walkout Tuesday to protest the university’s refusal to bargain with them.
The students plan to stage a week-long strike during what is the university’s most hectic time, when students and professors are preparing for finals and the help of graduate teaching assistants, fellows, and research assistants is critical.
They claim that the university has “repeatedly ignored” the majority support among graduate students for the Graduate Workers of Columbia University-United Automobile Workers (GWC-UAW). This, despite the fact that efforts to unionize have been ongoing for more than three years.
The distinction is not merely an issue of semantics, but one of rights, better wages, and improved working conditions. According to a January 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, graduate teaching assistants have taken on heavier workloads, have more responsibility when it comes to teaching and grading, and assume much of the research that ends up winning the universities grants and prestige.
“And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage,” the report stated.
The EPI report found that between 2005 and 2015, the rise in graduate assistant and non-tenure-track faculty jobs surpassed that of tenured and tenure-track jobs, with the former currently making up approximately 73 percent of the academic workforce.
“The simple explanation for this increasing reliance on graduate and non-tenure-track faculty is that they are far less costly to employ,” the report reads.
In a statement last week, Columbia University provost John H. Coatsworth said “we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students.”
Coatsworth noted that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has “repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years,” and called for a judicial review of the “still-unsettled question.” The most recent decision came in 2016, when the NLRB ruled that student teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to form a union. That ruling is expected to be reversed again under the current Trump administration.
Other universities across the country, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have also recently taken steps toward unionization. Harvard graduate students voted to unionize with UAW last week.
“This growing momentum makes clear that Columbia’s efforts to block our democratic rights here on our campus cannot hold back the rising tide of academic workers seeking to improve our conditions and make our universities more just and inclusive for all,” a statement posted on the GWC website on Monday reads. “Columbia administration needs to get on the right of history and negotiate with our union.”
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
University of Wisconsin-Madison’s anonymous complaints of sexual harassment often rest on “institutional memory” and there is no actual requirement in place to document them, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
There are two channels for sexual harassment reports at the university. Students and employees can file formal complaints, which results in an investigation by the Title IX coordinator’s office, or they can report through an informal resolution that lets accusers remain anonymous but does not allow the university to mete out more severe penalties.
UW-Madison officials told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university is working on clearer policies for both of these processes, but confirmed that there is no policy in place requiring employees to track anonymous complaints.
The lack of a formal system to track anonymous sexual harassment complaints is particularly troublesome given the number of complaints made against faculty members by co-workers or students at UW-Masison. It’s fairly common for female graduate students at the university to experience sexual harassment from faculty members. A 2015 survey on sexual misconduct found that of those women who experienced harassment, 22.2 percent reported that their harasser was a faculty member at UW-Madison.
Experts interviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal — Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, and Saunie Schuster, a co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators — said this is big problem for universities. Universities may not know that a faculty member is a serial harasser if they haven’t recorded multiple complaints, and the institution would be a legal target for sexual harassment victims.
The university responded to the Journal and said it is in the process of developing a system to record these allegations.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is hardly alone, however. Universities across the country have poor policies to address harassers in their university systems, even if that person has harassed people multiple times. Some universities may actively protect faculty who are accused of harassment.
In March 2015, Sujit Choudhry, the dean at UC Berkeley School of Law, was accused of harassment by his executive assistant. Berkeley investigators found that he had in fact harassed his assistant Tyann Sorrell, but in April of this year, the university reached a deal with him anyway, allowing him to receive research funding, keep tenure, and avoid any charges. His pay was reduced 10 percent and he had to apologize to Sorrell, but even with his pay cut, he made $373,500 annually.
Soon after the university reached this deal, experts on Title IX policy told ThinkProgress that the Choudhry deal is fairly common, because universities tend to identify more with the alleged harasser than the victim. In many cases, faculty members have more resources than the victim, and could drag out a lawsuit against the university after it metes out serious disciplinary consequences.
And too often, serial harassers are allowed to continue their harassment. In March, the Associated Press looked at 112 cases from January 2013 to April 2016 at nine campuses in the University of California system. The investigation found that rumors about the accused faculty circulated for years until universities took any kind of action??and that even after they did so, many faculty members kept their jobs.
The issue of faculty harassment of graduate students is a national one, and universities will have to adjust their policies if they’re going to address it. In 2016, researchers who surveyed 525 graduate students on sexual and gender-based harassment found that 38 percent of female participants and 23.4 percent of male participants self-reported that they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.
More recent research shows that faculty harassers are often serial harassers and engage in serious forms of harassment such as sexual assault. According to a study released in July, “A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem: Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty,” most harassers studied have physically rather than verbally harassed students. Some faculty harassers exhibited “domestic-abuse like behaviors.” Over half of the faculty cases studied — 53 percent — were alleged to have participated in serial harassment.
Graduate students hope to secure protection from harassment as they fight for their labor rights. Graduate students say that union representation and collective bargaining will help them get contracts that cover issues of sexual harassment.
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.
The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).
But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.
I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.
I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.
Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”
These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.
Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.
All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.
For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’
The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.
This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.
In 63 days, organized labor is going to find itself in a new political reality, which it seems totally unprepared for. Donald Trump will be president; the Republicans will control the House and Senate and one of Trump’s first tasks will be to nominate a new Supreme Court justice. Though Trump was tight-lipped about specific policy proposals, his campaign and the current constitution of the Republican party do not bode well for labor.
Trump’s actions will largely fall into one of four categories: judicial, legislative, executive and at the level of federal agencies. Each potential move will take various levels of cooperation from other branches of government and varying amounts of time to complete.
On Day 1 of his new administration, President Trump can simply rescind many of Barack Obama’s executive orders that benefited large groups of workers. Chief among these were EO 13673, which required prospective federal contractors to disclose violations of state and federal labor laws, and helped protect employees of contractors from wage theft and mandatory arbitration of a variety of employment claims. Similarly, EO 13494 made contractor expenses associated with union busting non-allowable, thereby helping to ensure that workers can exercise their labor rights.
At the agency level, Trump will have the opportunity to fill vacancies on the five-person National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), effectively turning what has been one of the most pro-worker boards in recent memory into one that is more concerned with employers’ interests. The NLRB is one of the more politicized federal agencies, and it is not uncommon for a new NLRB to overturn a previous board’s rulings. A conservative board would put into jeopardy recent gains, including the requirement of joint employers to bargain with workers, the rights of graduate students to form unions, the rights of adjuncts at religious colleges to form unions and the protections from class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements, which effectively block access to justice for too many.
Similarly, Trump can immediately dismiss the entire Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) and appoint his own members. The FSIP is a little-known federal agency that functions like a mini-NLRB to resolve disputes between unionized federal employees and the government.
At the legislative level, various anti-worker bills sit ready for a GOP-led push. Perhaps chief among them is the National Right to Work Act, which would place every private sector employee (including airline and railway employees currently under the Railway Labor Act) under right-to-work. Right-to-work is the misleading law that prohibits unions from requiring that workers represented by the union pay their fair share. Such a bill was introduced last year by Sen. Rand Paul, and it had 29 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump announced on the campaign trail that his “position on right-to-work is 100 percent,” so this will likely be an area where he has common cause with the GOP-controlled Congress.
At the judicial level, there is also a strong possibility that we will see a sequel to the Friedrichs case at the Supreme Court. Friedrichs was widely anticipated to bar fair share fees and place all public sector employees under right-to-work, but ended in a deadlock after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. It is likely that any Supreme Court justice that Trump chooses will be as critical of fair share fees as Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, and would provide a critical fifth vote in changing long-standing precedent regarding the allowance of such fees. Groups like the National Right to Work Committee and Center for Individual Rights often have cases in the pipeline that could be pushed to the Supreme Court when the opportunity arises.
Similarly, at the judicial level, Trump will likely have his Department of Labor drop appeals to court decisions that enjoined or overturned pro-worker rules, such as the rule requiring union-busters to disclose when they are involved in an organizing campaign. Dropping the appeals would be an easy route to kill the rules, rather than going through a more time consuming rulemaking process to rescind them.
All indications are that labor has been caught unprepared for a President Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress and Supreme Court. With such broad control over every branch of government, Trump may be able to not only roll back many of Obama’s accomplishments, but also change the face of labor law for decades to come.
This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on November 17, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
December 5 fell on a Friday in 2014; in New York City, the air was crisp. At Columbia University, about 200 graduate student-workers pulled on hats and scarves to gather on the imposing steps of Low Library, which houses the university president’s office. While most stood in a block formation, holding signs declaring their department names, a small delegation went inside to deliver a letter to the president. It asked that he voluntarily recognize their union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110), which a majority of graduate employees supported.
When the administration declined to reply, GWC and the United Auto Workers (UAW), with which it is affiliated, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify their union. A complicated legal process ensued.
For more than a decade, the NLRB considered graduate employees to be students, not workers. As such, they did not have the same legal rights of most employees, including the right to organize. All that changed two weeks ago when the NLRB decision on the Columbia case finally came back, siding with the student-workers and their right to collective bargaining.
“Obviously, it’s a huge push for us and it’s caused a lot of excitement and enthusiasm,” says Ian Bradley-Perrin, a PhD student in sociomedical sciences and history, who has worked as both a teaching and research assistant.
After months of approaching people with hypotheticals, he says that he and his fellow organizers can now speak in concrete terms: “We’re going to have an election. We are now recognized as workers. So it’s just been talking to people about what a union actually means, how the union is organized democratically, how people’s interests will be represented in the union.”
Graduate teaching and research assistants at a handful of private universities have been working towards unionization for years. Their administrations have largely been able to ignore their actions, citing the NLRB’s designation of them as students. Now, however, their efforts can finally move forward. They have the legal right to hold union elections and then negotiate contracts, providing them a collective voice in the terms of their employment. Already, the NLRB’s ruling is invigorating existing campaigns and inspiring new ones.
Path to recognition
Graduate employees at many public universities have long enjoyed the right to unionize, but their peers at private universities have faced a long, serpentine route to achieve that same right. In 2001, graduate employees at New York University (NYU) became the country’s first to form a union and negotiate a contract at a private university, providing teaching assistants with wage increases and improved working conditions.
Three years later, graduate employees at Brown University attempted to do the same, but the NLRB, which had then shifted to a Republican majority, ruled that graduate employees were primarily students, not workers. In 2005, the NYU union’s contract expired and, using the 2004 Brown decision as precedent, the administration refused to negotiate a new one.
NYU’s administration kept firm to that stance until fall 2013, when it offered to voluntarily recognize the union. More than 98 percent of graduate employees voted in favor of the union, making it, once again, the only graduate employee union at a private university.
Organizers across the country were anxious to follow in their footsteps. Last month’s NLRB ruling gives them a shot in the arm.
At Harvard University, graduate student organizer Abigail Weil is particularly excited by the expansive way in which the NLRB defined a graduate employee in its ruling: “It’s broader and more inclusive than even we had hoped for. That’s just that many more people that we can talk to and fold into the bargaining unit as we create it.”
In its decision, the NLRB writes, “It is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the (National Labor Relations) Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so.” It continues, “We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants.” Not only does this include research assistants in addition to teaching assistants, but, Weil posits, it could also be interpreted as including working Masters students—and possibly even working undergraduates.
According to Weil, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW) plans to file a petition for an election. She can already see a change in campus support.
“We’re thrilled at how many people were following the NLRB story,” she says. “Since that decision has come out, probably two-thirds of the people that we talk to now bring (it) up without us having to bring that up or explain it.”
Organizers at The New School, in New York City, are experiencing a similar phenomenon.
Like at Columbia, graduate employees at The New School asked their administration to voluntarily recognize their union. When that didn’t work, they too petitioned the NLRB for certification, only to hit the wall created a decade earlier by the Brown decision.
“We had our first meeting of the year on Monday and we had probably three times as many people show up,” says Eli Nadeau, a Masters student in the politics department at The New School. “We’re planning for an election because Columbia’s ruling covers us.”
Graduate workers at Cornell University took a slightly different approach to winning collective bargaining rights. While biding their time until the NLRB ruled on the Columbia case, they negotiated and signed a code of conduct with their administration in May. The document outlines the mechanisms by which a union election would take place and the behavior expected of both sides.
“Our next steps are really just working on the union. We are building outreach and finding out what our members’ concerns are,” explains Ben Norton, a PhD student in the music department and the communications and outreach chair of Cornell Graduate Students United, the university’s graduate employee union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
“We wasted no time”
Campaigns on numerous campuses have been galvanized by the Columbia decision, but graduate employees at Yale University took perhaps the swiftest action in its wake. Less than a week after the ruling, they filed a petition to hold an election to certify their union with the NLRB.
“We wasted no time. It was really exciting for the path to victory to open up and for us to really take advantage of it,” says Aaron Greenberg, a PhD student in the political science department and chair of Local 33-UNITE HERE, which represents Yale’s graduate teaching and research assistants.
In filing their petition, UNITE HERE and organizers at Yale are creating yet another variation on a graduate employee union. Rather than file as an entire unit of employees across the university, they did so department-by-department, starting with 10 departments.
“We really want a process that reflects how our work is organized. How much you get paid, what kind of work you do, what kind of hours you do really depend on the department,” explains Greenberg. Plus, he adds, “We’re hoping that by filing each department separately and starting with departments where the desire to unionize is overwhelmingly clear, we can avoid wasteful legal gamesmanship, unnecessary delays, and that the university will respect the democratic will of the members of these departments, who have made clear, time and time again, that they want a union.”
One of the next steps for graduate employees at many of the private universities hoping to take advantage of the recent NLRB decision will be working out the exact parameters of the bargaining unit: who it covers and who it excludes is not yet completely clear. But in the meantime, they will, for the first time in more than a decade, be able to move closer towards unionization without legal barriers—barriers which, organizers believe, were knocked down by the force of the organizing that took place in those intervening years.
“Labor law follows organizing, not the other way around,” says Weil. “We have been organizing to the full extent of our abilities, not the full extent of our legal rights. We’re happy to have those rights restored.”
This article was originally posted at InTheseTimes.com on September 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Rebecca Nathanson is a freelance writer in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera America, n+1, The Nation, NewYorker.com,The Progressive, RollingStone.com, and more.
According to the George W. Bush-era National Labor Relations Board, graduate students at private universities didn’t count as employees of those universities, no matter how much employment-type work they did. That means those students couldn’t unionize. Now, the NLRB has reversed that, saying graduate students can unionize:
First, the board rejected argument that graduate students cannot be employees because their relationship to their employer remains “primarily educational.” This interpretation, the board wrote, cannot actually be found in the “statutory text” of federal labor law, and cannot be derived from its “fundamental policy.” Instead, the board asked whether colleges and students had a “common-law employment relationship,” with the school exerting control over its student employees and compensating them for their labor. Because such a relationship obviously exists, students may be considered “employees” of the universities for which they work.
As for the earlier ruling’s other concerns, the NLRB noted that almost all of them are “purely theoretical.” There is no empirical evidence that collective bargaining would somehow destroy the relationship between working graduate students and their employers by disrupting “traditional goals of higher education.” There is no proof that collective bargaining might restrict freedom of expression in the university setting. Indeed, graduate students at public universities have been unionizing for years without imperiling their school’s academic mission. And recent research has found “no support” for the assertion that graduate student unionization “would harm the faculty-student relationship” or “would diminish academic freedom.”
In the most recent academic year, Laura Hung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University, earned $19,200 as a teaching and research assistant. The money was barely enough to cover her $1,000 rent and certainly not enough to pay for the health insurance offered by the university, she said. Hung is on Medicaid and said she is just $200 a year shy of qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a form of welfare.
“Being a teaching and research assistant is important; it’s given me valuable classroom experience. What we do has an educational benefit, but the fact of the matter is we’re not paid fair wages,” said Hung, 31, who is finishing up her dissertation. “We work well over the hours we’re supposed to and as a result wind up being paid minimum wage or less. That’s not enough to live in D.C. Trying to make ends meet every month is virtually impossible.”
Organizing is easier said than done, of course, with some universities having shown themselves as willing to fight unionization as any major corporation. But at least now the government won’t throw up an added barrier.
This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.
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