On Thursday, Provost John Coatsworth responded to our recent open letter, in which grad workers from departments across the university announced we would organize a strike authorization vote if the administration continued to defy their legal obligation to bargain. Coatsworth reiterated that Columbia intends to continue violating the democratic principles of our University by refusing to bargain with our union. Coatsworth simultaneously promised new “enhancements” to benefits that he announced in a separate email to PhD grad workers across campus the next day. Many of us have fought for these types of enhancements, such as fully-paid dependent coverage, since our union campaign started more than three years ago. We welcome such improvements, but we also know that whatever Columbia offers as part of its campaign to refuse to bargain only affects a small part of the overall bargaining agenda we democratically approved last year. Nothing they choose for us can be an adequate substitute for the power to set the terms of our labor as equals.

Please find Coatsworth’s full letter below, along with our comments (on the right side) correcting some of his more misleading statements.

Dear representatives of GWC-UAW Local 2110:
The University will not be altering the position set forth in my January 30 letter.  Our principled disagreement with you about the employment status of teaching and research assistants is an issue that the NLRB has been unable to resolve conclusively, alternating every few years between the view you espouse and the one we hold.  As I have said, this fundamental legal question is one that should be decided by the courts; only that outcome will bring clarity and stability to the operations of universities and colleges in the United States. The experience of 60+ public universities, as well as private universities like NYU, suggests that unionization—not lengthy and expensive legal battles with their employers—brings “clarity and stability” to the lives of graduate workers. Disagreement—principled or otherwise—with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) does not give anybody a right to break the law.

Coatsworth says our right to unionize is a question the NLRB “has been unable to resolve conclusively.” But over the last year and a half, graduate workers have been very clear. Across the United States, over 18,000 Research and Teaching Assistants were eligible to vote for their unions and nearly 60% voted yes. Five private universities have agreed to bargain, joining their public counterparts in respecting the voice of graduate workers. The Provost hopes that, under Trump’s presidency, the courts will eventually side against us; and if even the scantest hope remains, he will refuse to respect the overwhelming will of graduate workers on this campus. But our voice has never wavered.

Recent decisions to withdraw union organizing efforts at other universities have reduced the likelihood that a broader national resolution of this issue will occur.  I therefore want to take this opportunity to be transparent about several facts that, in our view, are incompatible with treating research and teaching assistants as employees. Recent decisions to withdraw union organizing efforts at other universities have reduced the likelihood that the new Trump appointees to the NLRB will strip us of our right to organize and represent ourselves in collective bargaining.

Coatsworth hoped administrations at other universities would offer a “broader national resolution” by overturning the NLRB ruling we won in August, 2016. We ask: why does the Provost think an NLRB ruling counts as a “resolution” only if it opposes unionization?

Graduate students attending Columbia are admitted because of their potential to excel as scholars and teachers.  This is not an abstract idea but the essence of what the University is engaged in doing every day.  For example, in the event a graduate student’s performance is subpar, she would not be fired as may be the case with an employee; instead, the student is provided additional training and tutoring, and every opportunity to raise her standard for successful completion of the research, dissertation, and other academic work necessary for fulfillment of the relevant degree requirements.  When those requirements are met, graduation does not mark the end of our relationship with that scholar; rather, faculty invest considerable time and employ their professional relationships to identify positions at another institution, an effort that in commercial settings would be akin to training personnel and then placing the emerging talent with a competing business.  In keeping with this reality, graduate student compensation cannot be measured simply by stipend paid and benefits provided—as essential as those are to our students’ quality of life—but includes the far larger value, typically in the range of $50,000 annually, of the full tuition cost of attending Columbia University.  In all of these ways, we are training and helping to launch the careers of the next generation of scholars and scientists.  The model in place today has allowed us to pursue quite successfully this core mission of the University; a different model may not. The Provost is deeply out of touch with the real concerns of graduate workers throughout the University. Many of us do, in fact, find ourselves stripped of funding, without teaching or research appointments, or asked to leave the program, when our “performance is subpar.”

As our professors know well, the fact that the university is a place of learning does not mean it is not also a workplace. Demanding a say in our own working conditions does not mean we do not value the time and labor invested in our academic training by faculty. The union wants to recognize and respect this difference. The University wants to obscure it, so that they don’t have to acknowledge our right to bargain collectively.

By counting our tuition as part of our compensation, the University is using an anti-union tactic that failed at NYU and other universities, and graduate workers fought vehemently when the Trump taxed bill tried to claim the same . Universities set tuition and then decide how much to allot through stipends and pay, which includes working as teaching and research assistants. This is not charity. We earn it.

None of this is to say that we are unmindful of the many challenges of being a graduate student in 2018, and particularly in New York City.  Pursuant to an earlier commitment, Ph.D. students on our Morningside campus are in the middle of a three-year period during which their stipends are being increased by a minimum of 3 percent annually, a rate of increase exceeding that secured by graduate students represented by unions at other institutions.  We have also announced improvements in parental leave and childcare subsidies, and the assumption of service fees for our international students.  These will soon be followed by enhancements in other significant areas. The enhancements offered today show that the university thinks that unionization is solely an economic issue. In fact, these enhancements underscore the real issue: that the university has the power to decide the terms of our employment unilaterally. This total control enables the university to offer select enhancements to select schools without addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment on campus or providing a grievance procedure that would allow us to seek justice without depending on Columbia to make our choices for us.

What the Provost fails to mention is that all these improvements came about after the union gained significant traction and our organizing campaign went public. Columbia announced the “three year commitment” in 2016 just a month before the NLRB ruled in our favour. Now in 2018, right after losing repeated appeals against our majority vote, and our public letter announcing our strike organizing, the University announced “enhancements” such as dependent coverage, which are included in our bargaining platform. Coincidence? Clearly not. Unionizing works!

I urge you to consider these points should you remain determined to contemplate a course of action that might result in a strike, a momentous act that would cause incalculable damage to the world class teaching, scholarship, and research that has attracted thousands of students and faculty to Columbia. It is not the union’s course of action, but the administration’s obstinate refusal to respect either an overwhelming democratic vote or the law, that is pushing workers to contemplate a strike. We sincerely hope the university will choose to respect our democratic choice before any strike is called.

We are glad that the Provost agrees that the labor of graduate workers is so essential to the “world class teaching, scholarship, and research” at Columbia that a strike would be “a momentous act that would cause incalculable damage.” Unfortunately, the Provost attempts to cover up the real “incalculable damage” that he and the rest of the administration inflict on the core principles of this University every day that they continue refusing to bargain.

The University fears a strike will mean institutional accountability and a loss of power; they know the collective power of graduate workers. Together, we will be able to make demands and require the University to work with us on creating truly “world class teaching, scholarship, and research” at an institution where all workers are respected. We are workers—BARGAIN NOW!


John H. Coatsworth

The University has all the power to get on the right side of history and follow the example of other private universities that have respected democratic votes of graduate workers to unionize and started bargaining with them. We call on Columbia to do the same and begin bargaining without delay.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you would like to talk to us about organizing for a strike authorization vote.


The Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110) Organizing Committee