Columbia Files Objections to 'Conduct' of Student Unionization Election

Columbia University has objected to the “conduct” of a vote permitting eligible students at the school to form a union and called for a new union election, arguing to the National Labor Relations Board that alleged voting day violations could have skewed results of the election.

At Columbia, eligible graduate and undergraduate teaching and research assistants voted in favor of unionization by a vote of 1,602 to 623 on Dec. 7 and 8 and became the first group of students at a private university to successfully unionize after a landmark NLRB ruling in August. In its “statement of objections” to the NLRB, Columbia has asked the NLRB to “set aside” those results and conduct a new election.

Columbia’s filing comes as graduate and undergraduate teaching and researching assistants at Harvard await the results of their own unionization election, which took place Nov. 16 and 17. The results of that vote have been repeatedly delayed as parties sort through challenged ballots, but the NLRB could announce whether or not eligible Harvard students can form a union as early as Thursday.

Columbia listed several alleged election day violations in its filing to the NLRB, including allegations that “Union agents” were within 100 feet of a particular polling place and that a university official observing the election was dismissed in front of eligible voters. These alleged violations, Columbia wrote in the statement, “destroyed the laboratory conditions necessary for an election.”

Other statements in the filing allege that an NLRB “Board Agent” closed the doors to one polling location, which the filing argues could have prevented students from voting. The filing also charges that the same agent “turned away many prospective voters after running out of challenge ballot envelopes” and that ineligible students may have voted because of discrepancies in voter ID policy.

While the unionization vote passed at Columbia by a wide margin, Columbia officials wrote in the filing that when the “no” votes and challenged ballots are counted together, the union’s margin of victory is 332 ballots, a small percentage of the larger eligible voting pool.

The 647 challenged ballots—ballots set aside and not yet counted due to issues of eligibility—cannot numerically sway the election even if each one was against unionization. Still, the filing argues that the vote margin, when counted to include challenged ballots, is small enough that students who did not vote because they “may well have been deterred from voting by the objectionable conduct” could have swayed the election.

To Columbia Ph.D. student and union organizer Olga Brudastova, the union’s victory in the election was “overwhelming.” She called the administration's move a “classic delay tactic.”

“We did hope that it wouldn’t reach that point, especially since we moved throughout the whole week without any objections from them,” Brudastova said. Some union organizers at Columbia wrote in a Facebook post that they are worried that Donald Trump’s presidential administration could affect the unionization process if it is delayed enough.

Robert Hornsby, Columbia’s Media Relations Assistant Vice President, declined to comment on whether Columbia’s objections are part of any delay tactic or strategy, but wrote in an email that the objections were filed “as part of [the NLRB’s] established procedure for determining whether the conduct of the election was appropriate.”

“We share the NLRB’s goal of ensuring a fair electoral process and protecting the rights of all students,” Hornsby wrote.

Harvard unionization organizers have circulated a petition calling on Columbia to drop its objections.

“Our hope is that the Columbia administration will respect the democratic decision of Columbia student workers and use its vast resources to bargain with GWC-UAW instead of fight them,” Harvard union organizer and Ph.D. student Jack M. Nicoludis wrote in an email.

The NLRB allows a seven day window after ballots are counted for parties to file objections. Columbia filed its objections Dec. 16, seven days after the tally. Under NLRB rules, post-election hearings for objections open 21 days after the tally or as soon as possible after, but the parties may agree to an earlier date.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at leah.yared@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.

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