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Columbia Refuses to Bargain with Its Graduate Student Union, Possibly Threatening NLRB Precedent

A polling place for Harvard's first student unionization election.
A polling place for Harvard's first student unionization election. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Columbia University will not respond to a bargaining request from its graduate student union, University Provost John H. Coatsworth wrote in a letter to Columbia students on Tuesday. Experts say the developments at Columbia could have significant ramifications for Harvard's upcoming second unionization election.

As a result of the university’s decision, organizers with the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers say they plan to file an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board.

In his email, Coatsworth wrote that recognizing a graduate students union would compromise the university’s educational mission, and that the university seeks to pursue “the legal process” before collectively bargaining with students.

“We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment,” Coatsworth wrote.

Labor experts said Columbia’s refusal to bargain and the resulting NLRB proceedings could impact Harvard's upcoming unionization election.

A 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision at Columbia set the precedent for graduate student unionization at private universities, but will likely be reversed by a Republican-led board, according to former NLRB chairman William B. Gould IV and University of Oregon Professor of Labor Education Gordon Lafer.

“Most NLRBs and most courts would say, well, we’re not going to decide the question of whether or not Columbia University was correctly decided until we’ve decided whether the union’s complaints have merit,” said Gould, who is currently a law professor at Stanford. “But this board is very anxious to reverse as much Obama-era precedent as it can.”

Any decision by the NLRB stating that graduate students may not unionize would imperil the unionization effort at Harvard. Eligible graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants are set to vote in April on whether or not to collectively bargain with the University through Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers.

Gould said, however, that the NLRB is unlikely to stop graduate unionization by directly ruling in the Columbia case. He added that NLRB Chairman Marvin E. Kaplan, who was appointed by President Donald Trump last year, will likely recuse himself from the ongoing case due to family ties with the university, leaving the board with two Democrats and one Republican. Trump has also yet to formally nominate a fifth member, who is expected to vote against continuing to recognize graduate students as workers.

“There are only three people who can vote on this refusal to bargain, and I would imagine that they would handle this in the normal way. Trump has expressed an intent to nominate someone else, a fifth person, to be on the board,” Gould said. “But even if that happens, and I don’t think they’re going to delay handling the case, and the vote would still be 2-2, which would uphold the regional director’s decision.”

Gould said it is more likely that a Republican-led NLRB would seek to reverse the 2016 Columbia precedent by ruling in a different graduate unionization dispute where Kaplan would not have a conflict of interest.

Yale, Boston College, and several other universities currently have pending appeals of the 2016 Columbia decision before the NLRB. The full NLRB may hear these cases in the coming months, possibly resulting in a decision to reverse the graduate unionization precedent.

Union organizers at both Columbia and Harvard were critical of Columbia’s decision to decline GWC-UAW’s bargaining request.

Olga Brudastova, a Columbia graduate student and union organizer, called the University’s decision “outrageous” in an email.

“It is nothing else but another disingenuous attempt to stall in the hopes that the movement will go away. But the majority support at Columbia and the graduate worker movement nationally just keep growing,” Brudastova wrote.

“We will continue the fight with any means necessary until Columbia and all other universities agree to respect the democratic choice of graduate workers to unionize.”

Andrew B. Donnelly, an HGSU-UAW organizer, echoed Brudastova’s remarks and criticized Columbia’s decision not to recognize its graduate student union.

“I think it’s clear that these universities are siding with, they’re using, the Trump board. They’re using his right-wing nationalist government in order to undermine the labor rights of their employees,” Donnelly said.

“They’re perfectly willing to go along with the Trump administration when it affects their bottom line.”

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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