A strike is a coordinated stoppage of work aimed at convincing an employer to meet employee demands. In our case, TAs, RAs, and others would stop our paid work doing grading, teaching, and research across the university in order to send a message to the administration that they need to make more progress in bargaining.
No. The bargaining committee is authorized by the 96% YES vote of March 2020 (1,833 to 77) to call a strike if needed to advance the negotiations.
Regardless of the work format, we would stop working and engage in organized strike events like picketing for the duration of the strike. Additionally, we could ask that other unionized workers, who are able to, to refuse to work with the school; for example, during our strike in April 2018, many delivery drivers refused to cross our picket lines to bring packages to campus.
We would hope that the administration would agree to our demands in order to avert a strike. However, if we do have to strike, the goal would be to demonstrate how indispensable student workers are. If the administration were to remain intransigent, a strike could go on for some time, but we would strategically assess the timing and the length of the strike.
The law protects our right to strike. Since the 1970s, thousands and thousands of RAs and TAs across the US—including here at Columbia in 2004 and 2018—have engaged in lawful strike activity without being fired. Beyond these legal protections, mass participation is our best protection since it makes it difficult to single out anyone even if Columbia did contemplate such an extreme action.
You would not have legal or academic protection if you refuse to go to your own classes. Student workers should continue their academic progress while striking; refusing to attend your classes as students is not legally protected.
International students have the same rights as US citizens to participate in union activity. It is illegal for Columbia to retaliate for protected activity. Thousands of international student workers across the United States have struck and been otherwise active in their unions for more than 40 years, including here at Columbia. Administration’s anti-strike campaigns often target international students because their visa status makes them more vulnerable, but you are protected.
Ultimately, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions: the contract provisions we win through striking will make Columbia a better place to teach and to learn. We would strive to educate students in advance of the strike so that they understand that it is growing out of six years of organizing and nearly a year of bargaining, where the University is yet to make meaningful proposals on both economic and non-economic issues. We would encourage them to contact the administration and resolve the strike before it even happens so their education is not disrupted. The impact of an actual strike depends on many factors: length of strike, time of the year, your duties, etc.
A partial strike consists of you doing part of your TA/RAship work and striking on the other half and would be unprotected by labor law.
Work/research that is absolutely necessary for your dissertation progress is academic work that you may continue. We want to be sure that any action allows the maximum number of people to participate with maximum impact on Columbia. The overall goal here is to strike on our paid work to pressure Columbia in bargaining, not delay our dissertation work. Conversely some grad workers will have to complete the bare minimum necessary to maintain their own research (e.g., tending to animals or live cultures) while refraining from other lab work.
You are not obligated to tell anyone about the strike, but you can and should talk to them. Ideally, we want them to tell the administration to bargain a fair contract so that a strike can be avoided.
Strikes are more effective when there is large participation. It is important that we stand together if we need to strike, and show solidarity with each other. Our union will not penalize members who do not participate in a strike.
During our strike in April 2018, over 1,500 of our colleagues from across the university participated. In the event of a strike that lasts more than seven days, and if Columbia exercises its right to stop paying those who strike, all striking workers would be eligible to receive strike pay from the United Auto Workers (the national union we are affiliated with) of up to $275 per week for the duration of the strike. We could also raise money independently for those who would face extreme hardship in a strike (e.g., those with dependents). In order to qualify for the strike benefits, workers are asked to perform strike duty, such as picketing.
The decision by the National Labor Relations Board that granted our collective bargaining rights, defined members of our union as all undergraduate and graduate student employees performing instructional services and graduate employees performing research service.

As stated in the NLRB decision, these titles could include, but are not limited to: “All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders): All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and All Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis facilities.”

About Program Assistants. At the time of the hearing at the NLRB, in 2015, the evidence was that Program Assistants performed administrative duties and did not perform instructional services or work similar to the work performed by research assistants. If today Program Assistants are providing instructional services or work similar to research assistants, then the Union considers you to be included in the bargaining unit. Whether you are in the bargaining unit or not, you have the same rights as unit employees to strike in support of our demand that the University offers us the contract we deserve.
Yes—we will schedule trainings so that we can learn from experienced strikers about how a strike can be most effective and maintain high participation levels.
You can stay informed by joining our mailing list here: Additionally, email us at to reach out to a GWC organizer to talk more about how you can get involved.


Eligible voters are Columbia graduate and undergraduate students who are currently employed by the university, have been employed by the university in the past, or whose program includes a degree requirement to be employed by the university in one of the categories outlined by the NLRB decision (i.e. graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers, Graders, Graduate Research Assistants [including those on Training Grants], and All Departmental Research Assistants), and who have signed a union authorization card or similar card authorizing representation by GWC-UAW. If you have not done so already, you may fill out a union authorization card by going to the GWC-UAW website online here.
Signing an authorization card in order to vote in our union’s elections complies with the UAW constitution and UAW Local 2110 by-laws.
  • The requirement is based on following the guidelines of the Local Union bylaws. Article X, Section 4, says “All members in good standing working under the jurisdiction to be represented by the Steward or Bargaining Committee person shall be entitled to nominate and to vote for the Steward or Bargaining Committee person.”
  • The UAW Constitution defines a member “in good standing” as someone who is current on paying dues. Before a contract, we use an authorization card or other indication of support for the union as the equivalent of membership (since no one is paying dues). This is also consistent with the practices at NYU and UConn.
  • This requirement is also consistent with governance after a contract has been ratified, per the UAW Constitution. Article 6, Section 20, for example, says “Non-members covered by an agency shop clause in a UAW contract shall receive all the material benefits to which members are entitled but shall not be allowed other membership participation in the affairs of the Union.”
No. Formal membership does not start until we vote to ratify our first contract, fill out membership cards and start paying membership dues when working under the contract.

Click here to read more on membership.


Columbia can do better, as the improvements we have won since starting to organize two years ago make clear. Unionizing will enable us to solidify and build upon what we have already won.

With collective bargaining, we would democratically determine priorities, elect a bargaining committee who negotiates as equals for improvements, vote democratically on approving them, and put any agreements into a legally binding contract that Columbia could not subsequently change without our consent. Not surprisingly, the Columbia administration wants us to vote no because without a union, they can decide unilaterally what our benefits and other conditions are. If you want a more democratic system where we participate in the decisions that affect our daily lives and our ability to carry out quality research and teaching, then you should vote YES!
On August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) restored the right to collective bargaining for research and teaching assistants, broadly defined, in a decision on the GWC-UAW petition for a unionization election.  The NLRB decision affirmed GWC-UAW’s proposed “bargaining unit,” the group of employees who would be represented by the Union.

The unit is: “All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders); All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and All Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis facilities.”
The NLRB decision means that if a majority vote yes for GWC-UAW as our union in the upcoming election, Columbia will have a legal obligation to engage in collective bargaining with us.

The NLRB decision reversed a George W. Bush-era case involving Brown University that took away the right to collective bargaining for RAs and TAs at private universities. Prior to the Brown decision, TAs and RAs at New York University voted to unionize with the UAW and negotiated major improvements – including a 38 percent increase to minimum stipends and paid health insurance – in the first-ever union contract for graduate employees at a private university. Our victory at the NLRB in 2016 not only ensures our right to choose unionization in a democratic election at Columbia, but grants thousands of RAs and TAs at other private universities the right to organize if they so choose.

Graduate employee unions in our public universities are common; more than 60 campuses nationwide already have recognized unions and engage in collective bargaining. This includes New York University, SUNY, CUNY, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, Rutgers University, the University of California, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan, as well as many others. Graduate employees at Harvard, Boston College, Yale, Cornell and the University of Chicago are currently in the process of organizing unions.
The vote will take place on December 7 and 8.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016
  • Morningside Heights Campus: 10am – 8pm, Earl Hall
  • Columbia University Medical Center: 10am – 8pm, Hammer Health Sciences Building Lower Level 1 Room 104
  • Lamont-Doherty earth Observatory: 10am – 3pm, Sutton House

Thursday, December 8, 2016
  • Morningside Heights Campus: 10am – 8pm, Earl Hall
  • Columbia University Medical Center: 10am – 8pm, Hammer Health Sciences Building Lower Level 1 Room 104
  • Nevis Laboratory, Irvington, NY: 10am – 12pm, conference room at 136 South Broadway
The NLRB decision on August 23 defined the “bargaining unit,” or which positions would be represented by the union in collective bargaining. That unit includes: “All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders): All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and all Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty, and Nevis facilities.” Any other employees are not included.
Because of the intermittent nature of work as RAs and TAs, the NLRB established an “eligibility formula” for voting in the election that includes not just current employees but also people who worked in the previous academic year who may not be currently employed in the unit.  After listening to arguments from the union and the university, the decision setting the election defines the pool of eligible voters as follows.

Eligible to vote will be all unit employees who: (1) hold an appointment [RA or TA] or a training grant in a unit position in the fall semester 2016 or (2) are course assistants, graders or readers who are on the casual payroll and who worked 15 hours per week or more in a unit position in the fall semester 2016; or (3) have held a unit position for either the fall, spring or summer during the prior academic year.

You can read the full NLRB decision on eligibility here.

Throughout deliberations with the NLRB, Columbia has sought to limit eligibility to vote.  The University took the position that only students actually working this semester would be allowed to vote.  This formula was established by the NLRB in response to the Union’s efforts to expand the franchise to as many student employees as possible within the limits of the law.

If you believe you are eligible, based on the NLRB decision and election order, and you are not on the list provided to the NLRB by the University, you may still vote and cast a “challenged” ballot. If the number of challenged ballots cast ends up being determinative of the outcome, the union and the University would attempt to resolve the eligibility of those individuals in order to resolve the final outcome of the election.

Again, we encourage all who are eligible to participate in this historic vote. If you have any questions, please do contact us and we will be happy to help you with any questions about the union or voter eligibility issues.

The NLRB did not determine that individual fellowships from an outside agency, such as an F31 NIH Fellowship, are in the bargaining unit, as the terms and decision as to who receives the award are set by the NIH and not the University. However, since most NIH fellows work in departments where the departmental rate is significantly higher than the NIH stipend, the department supplements the total pay with other university money that is typically used for RAs doing research in the labs. By virtue of that compensation for research, the union believes you should be in the bargaining unit and should therefore be eligible to vote. If the University did not put you on the eligibility list, you should feel free to vote challenged and if the challenges are determinative, we would have to resolve those with Columbia.
Unless you have another bargaining unit position, such as a grader position, you are not eligible to vote. In order to be eligible to vote in an NLRB election, an employee must have actually started working in a bargaining unit job before the NLRB orders that the election be held. It is not enough that the employee has been hired by the Employer and told that he or she will start working in the future: he or she must have actually started working. The NLRB has applied this rule for at least 60 years.
The election is administered by the NLRB. Typically, the vote would be held onsite at the university and all eligible voters would be notified in advance of the times and locations. The ballot would ask voters to indicate “yes” to representation by GWC-UAW or “no union.” The vote is by secret ballot. At a similar election in 2002, the NLRB held on-site voting at Morningside, CUMC, Lamont-Doherty, and Nevis.
It takes a simple majority of those voting to establish GWC-UAW as our Union, but to build maximum momentum to win a strong contract, it will be important to have support from a majority of all eligible RAs and TAs.
The NLRB decision has no determinative effect on FICA or other rules of the IRS. Read the IRS “student exception” rule regarding FICA. Unions for graduate employees exist at more than 60 university campuses across the US, in many cases for several decades, and the “student exception” on FICA has existed side-by-side with those unions and continues to do so. The “student exception” would only go away if the IRS changes its rules. The NLRB decision would have no determinative legal bearing on IRS rules.

As far as “stipend becoming a wage” more generally, again, the NLRB determination has no bearing. As an example, NRSA Training Grant recipients are represented by the Union at the University of Washington. Their training grant stipend, per NIH rules, is still distributed as a “stipend” (meaning no tax withholdings –FICA OR income tax—at the time of payment by the University, per NIH guidelines) The upside of the Union and the contract at UW is that, despite the University’s efforts to deny coverage in a number of cases, Trainees now clearly qualify for workers compensation if they are injured at work—you can read about it on their Union website (scroll down to the section entitled “Health & Safety and Workers Compensation).


As TAs and RAs, we do a large amount of the teaching, grading, grant-winning research, and administrative work at Columbia, often under precarious conditions regarding compensation and benefits. Through collective bargaining, we can ensure livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, and consistent and transparent employment policies that will enhance our conditions and our work – and ultimately, enhance Columbia.
Collective bargaining is a process, recognized and protected by federal law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer. Under collective bargaining, we elect representatives to negotiate on equal footing with Columbia and put the terms of our employment into a legally binding contract. Through collective bargaining, graduate employee unions have successfully negotiated improvements in wages, hours, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.

Without collective bargaining, Columbia has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, Columbia currently decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure we get paid on time or whether our stipends keep up with the cost of university housing.
After a successful election, we will do the following to prepare for and engage in the process of negotiating a contract with Columbia:
  • elect a bargaining committee from among Columbia RAs and TAs;
  • based on existing and further surveys, the committee will develop initial bargaining proposals; before bargaining commences, we, the RAs and TAs, will vote to ratify these goals;
  • the committee will meet with university representatives to negotiate in pursuit of our bargaining goals;
  • when our committee has negotiated a tentative agreement with the University they feel they can recommend, RAs and TAs will vote whether to ratify it as our first contract;
  • The bargaining committee will be aided throughout by experienced negotiators from the local union and our regional UAW representatives;
  • after the contract is ratified, the membership will elect representatives who help run the Union and help members with any problems they have in the workplace
Collective bargaining equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer.  Without collective bargaining, Columbia decides unilaterally whether to make improvements, keep things the same, or take things away.  For example, Columbia decided unilaterally to replace our dental coverage with a far inferior option for the 2016-17 year and they continue to decide unilaterally whether we get paid on time, whether we get annual pay increases that keep up with housing costs, etc.  With a union, we harness our collective power and negotiate as equals with Columbia to reach a legally binding contract that Columbia cannot change without our consent.  Read here for examples of what academic workers have won through collective bargaining at other universities.

The process allows us to decide democratically what issues to prioritize in these negotiations.  As such, what RAs and TAs have won through collective bargaining at other universities varies, but in general, gains have been made in minimum stipends, health benefits, workload protections, and family benefits.  At NYU, for example, under their first contract in 2002, they won:
  • 38% increase in minimum stipends (which also led Columbia to increase stipends at the time), and a 15% increase for the small number already making more than the minimum;
  • Elimination of health insurance premium sharing (a savings of $1000 annually);f
  • guaranteed tuition/fee waivers for all graduate employees covered by the contract;
  • a fair grievance procedure;
  • protection against having RA/TA appointments withdrawn at the last minute;
  • workload protections;
  • increased child care subsidies; and
  • $100 per day for required pre-semester training or orientation.
Additional improvements established in the 2015 NYU contract include:
  • guaranteed annual minimum increases on total compensation, which protects and insures increases in stipends and other pay. During the current academic year, funded PhD TAs who teach both semesters will receive at least $37,783;
  • implementation of a family healthcare fund to provide up to 75% of premium subsidies;
  • implementation of a childcare fund, which provided a benefit to bargaining unit members of $2,140 per child in the first year of the contract;
  • an improved dental benefit amounting to a savings of $240 per year to each graduate employee covered by the contract; and
  • reinstatement of most of the protections negotiated in the 2002 contract.
After graduate employees successfully organized at NYU in 2000-2001, a majority of Columbia grad student workers also chose to unionize. After filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union certification, RAs and TAs voted in a NLRB election in 2002. We are confident that a majority voted “Yes” in that election, but the NLRB never counted the ballots because anti-Union appointees to the NLRB stripped our right to collective bargaining, in a 2004 case involving Brown University, and dismissed our case along with similar cases at not only Brown, but Tufts and Penn as well.

Despite the legal setback, however, graduate workers continued to organize. As a result of sustained majority support and organizing, graduate workers at NYU scored a major breakthrough in late 2013, when GSOC-UAW won an unprecedented, voluntary neutrality and election agreement with the administration. NYU RAs and TAs subsequently voted overwhelmingly – by a 98.4% margin – for unionization.  Soon after the NYU vote, graduate workers at Columbia formed an organizing committee and began reaching out to their coworkers, both one-on-one and through a series of town hall events.  By fall 2014, a majority of RAs and TAs at Columbia signed up for GWC-UAW and the union filed a petition at the NLRB in December of that year. Columbia refused to follow NYU's lead.  Instead of agreeing to a voluntary recognition process and neutrality, the university hired an expensive outside law firm to contest our right to collective bargaining.  After lengthy hearings and several rounds of legal arguments, GWC-UAW won the historic August 23, 2016, decision by the NLRB restoring the right to collective bargaining for RAs and TAs at private universities.  The decision means a likely election on unionization in fall 2016.

Read a more detailed history of grad worker organizing at Columbia here.
No.  In its efforts to convince us to vote no, the University continues to raise fears about this even though there is no evidence supporting their position from the 60 other university campuses with unions, and the only studies that exist show that unionization has no negative effect on advisor-advisee relationships.

The NLRB said the following on this topic in its ruling, “More recent survey-based research found 'no support' for the contentions that graduate student unionization ‘would harm the faculty-student relationship’ or ‘would diminish academic freedom,’ …the best analytical evidence offered by Columbia suggests merely that neither harm nor benefit from collective bargaining can be ruled out, the dire predictions of the Brown University Board are undercut.”

For more analysis, you can read an interesting critique of Provost Coatsworth’s anti-union rhetoric by the Vice President of the American Association of University Professors and the GWC-UAW analysis of Provost Coatsworth’s FAQ.

If anything, the university’s effort to enlist the support of faculty in their anti-union campaign is more likely to create a negative environment on campus, as most faculty understand that we should be able to make a free decision on the question of unionization.
No.  Collective bargaining has not produced that result at other universities where RAs have collective bargaining.  If you look at two current UAW contracts that include RAs, at the University of Washington and at the University of Connecticut, you see very clearly in both cases that the workload language does not have the effect Coatsworth suggests.

Instead, because collective bargaining is a democratic, nuanced and participatory process, the unions at UW and UConn have negotiated provisions that empower individuals – say, a TA who is being required to work so many hours that it detracts from their dissertation – to choose to address a workload problem, while simultaneously allowing those of us, like RAs doing paid “work” that helps our dissertation, the freedom to choose to spend as many hours in the lab as desired.

Put another way, the provisions of a contract would be negotiated between the university and the union. The university has no incentive to propose an hours-capping provision, since it benefits from the research labs produce. The union would have no reason to add such a provision, unless its member RAs made clear they wanted one, through bargaining surveys and other democratic channels. That seems unlikely – to put it mildly. Thus, it is hard to imagine anybody at the table making such a proposal, and even harder to imagine grad workers voting to ratify a contract that included it.
No. Collective bargaining has not produced that result at other universities.

At the University of Washington, probably the most similar to us since it has a large medical school with hundreds of RAs, a variable pay system existed before the contract and continues under the contract. Under that system, there are minimum pay rates that all departments must follow, but departments are free to pay higher rates. Graduate workers at UW democratically chose to preserve that system, and, while those at the lower pay rates have experienced larger increases, everyone’s pay has gone up after unionization.

In another example, under the first contract at NYU, the minimum stipends for the poorest-paid workers went up 38% over 4 years, while the small number of people above the minimum got at least a 15% raise over 4 years. Again, no one took a pay cut. In the second contract at NYU, the lowest paid workers at NYU Poly received signing bonuses of up to $1,500 and will see their hourly wage double (from $10 to $20 per hour) over the life of the contract, while the highest paid PhD workers received signing bonuses of up to $750 and will see their total compensation increase by roughly 13 percent.

A slightly different example is UConn, where graduate assistants had the same pay rates before unionization and the contract raised all those by 3% per year (in addition to significant increases in fee waivers that are worth an additional 3.2-7.6 percent wage increase, depending on FTE and academic standing). The contract also ensures additional step increases based on academic progress.

In all cases, these guaranteed gains were larger than the small percentage in membership dues, which is why these contracts were overwhelmingly ratified.

Feel free to read summaries of the before and after effects of collective bargaining at these and various other universities on the GWC-UAW website.

At Columbia, we will decide what to bargain for and we will determine our own fates collectively with the ratification of our contract. In hundreds of conversations across campus over the last two years, no one has said the Union should propose leveling pay or that anyone should take a pay cut, so we can rest assured pay leveling will not be a union proposal.
Many graduate employee unions cover employees with diverse interests.  At the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, and New York University,  RAs and TAs have negotiated strong contracts together.that addressed issues that affect everyone such as health, dental and vision benefits, guaranteed annual pay increases, sick leave and family benefits while simultaneously including provisions important to a particular group(s).

For an example of how the unions at UW and UConn addressed an issue that might affect RAs and TAs differently, see the response to the question on workload, above.  Another example of an issue that might matter more to RAs than, say, TAs, is vacation.  At UW, for example, TAs tend to get time off during academic break periods by default, but it was a huge priority for many RAs—while many had PIs who would allow time off, many had PIs who would not and it was totally arbitrary.  The contract now guarantees all RAs the right to at least four weeks of paid time off with no work expectations per year.  Other examples would be holidays, health and safety,parking and transit, and travel.  On parking, this was important to RAs who want the ability to drive in to do a short procedure late at night in order to keep an experiment going. RAs at UConn who had the same parking issue really benefited from the union contract, which cut parking prices in half for Graduate Assistants, both for the reasons at UW and because public transit is very limited there.
No. There is no evidence of collective bargaining having any of these effects. Both the union membership and the administration have to agree on a contract and neither party would want that result.  Collective bargaining simply means we can negotiate as equals in order to hold Columbia more accountable to do the best it can do.

As an example of how this plays out, in the first contract for postdocs at the University of California, the union negotiated significant pay increases, and the union and the university agreed to a phase-in process so that PIs would have the ability to accommodate the improvements without disrupting current research. Before collective bargaining, the University decided such things unilaterally, and some postdocs made as little as $18,000 per year even though UC had a “policy” stipulating that the minimum postdoc salary should have been $37,000.

Empirically, the overall number of RAs (and TAs) has grown at the University of Washington since unionization in 2004, as has the number of postdocs at the University of California since unionization in 2008.  Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.
That is not how grievance procedures work under a union contract. In fact, contracts typically encourage informal resolution of problems before putting them into the formal grievance procedure.

If there were a dispute, or an alleged violation of the contract, an individual RA would have the option of involving the union or not. If you talk to people at the University of Washington, for example, you’ll hear that they don’t need to file with their union in order to request vacation time under the contract or to ask to leave early one day for a family commitment. They talk directly to their PIs and advisers just like we do at Columbia. The difference is, if there is a problem, they have the option of involving a union representative to help resolve it. Normally, that effort to resolve the problem is done informally.

The language at the University of Washington is instructive. Article 8 of their contract says “The parties support the resolution of problems at the lowest possible level and to that end encourage informal discussions to resolve problems without the grievance procedure. Prior to initiating a grievance, the aggrieved party is encouraged to discuss the matter with the immediate supervisor. If requested, a Union representative may be involved in the discussion. Resolutions from pre-grievance discussions, although final, shall not be precedential.”  And if it is not resolved informally, it can be put into writing and, ultimately, taken to a neutral arbitrator to decide whether the University violated the contract.  But the decision to take these steps is in the hands of the individual RA.
The fact is our hands are tied now. We don’t have the power to make changes in our working conditions, now. We aren’t even empowered to negotiate with the Administration. The Administration has made changes in the past that haven’t been to our benefit, like changing the dental benefits. With a contract, their hands are tied. They can’t make changes without negotiating with us.

The contract can always be “re-opened” or renegotiated if both parties (the Union and the Administration) are in agreement to do so. Additionally, if new programs or new positions are created that weren’t contemplated by the contract, the Administration has a legal obligation to bargain the terms of employment for the new workers with the Union.

Furthermore, if this is a concern going into bargaining and a priority, we can negotiate for the ability to bargain during the life of the contract for things that are not addressed in the contract.

We also asked other grad employee unions (University of Washington and University of Massachusetts), and they have told us that this has never been a problem.
Because they have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens, international graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and running unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to belong to a union that represents you in a US workplace. No graduate student worker union has reported any complications among their members arising from the dual status of being both an international student and a unionized employee.

In fact, the GWC-UAW international students working group has been very active over the last two years and accomplished a lot as part of our union campaign.
Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if a problem arises during the contract or the administration is not fairly adhering to the contract.  Though many grievances are resolved quickly and informally, most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator whose decision is legally binding.

For example, GSOC at NYU just won an arbitration case involving NYU’s wrongful denial of tuition remission benefits to workers in the School of Education and the School of Social Work.  Affected graduate workers will receive a refund of approximately $1500/semester for each semester they were affected.

For more examples of how a fair and effective grievance procedure can work, you can check out highlights of how graduate employees at the University of Washington have successfully enforced their rights under the Union contract on issues ranging from pregnancy discrimination and tuition/fee waivers to payment and health and safety issues.
Currently, Columbia determines RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we would negotiate as equals with Columbia for improvements to our pay rates. RAs at UMASS and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining.
Strikes are generally a last resort after many other tactics have been exhausted, and the Union can only call a strike after a democratic vote in which at least two thirds vote to authorize a strike.  Strikes are more effective when there is large participation, but it is an individual choice to participate.  The UAW does not fine bargaining unit members who do not participate in a strike.

It is not uncommon to take a strike vote and to prepare to strike in order to make a breakthrough in contract negotiations when the administration takes a hard line.  This is precisely what happened at NYU in 2015 when the contract was settled hours before a strike was set to begin.

Second, there are alternatives to striking as a way to achieve bargaining objectives. For example, at the University of Connecticut, where state law prohibits striking in the public sector, graduate assistants organized and started a two-day sit-in toward the end of contract negotiations in 2015. On the evening of the first day of the sit-in reached a tentative agreement for a great first contract.

As for science RAs and strikes, at the University of Washington RAs have fortunately not had to strike since formation of the union in 2004, but have started preparations for a strike several times in order to achieve a fair contract.  In the process of preparing for a possible strike, RAs engaged in a process to figure out how to participate in a strike without damaging their own academic progress.  If we were to contemplate – together, democratically – a strike here at Columbia, we would obviously have to sort through that set of issues as well.
In fact, the administration can do this right now, without any recourse. But a union contract can provide, among all the other benefits, protections against this very problem. In the first year of the contract at UW, the University tried to reclassify several hundred graduate researchers on training grants out of being covered by the contract. They were able to stop it through a potential grievance. This ended up being huge when the University tried to deny Workers Compensation coverage to Trainees, but the Union prevailed through the grievance procedure (scroll down to health and safety and workers compensation).
These kinds of reprisals are unlawful and there have been no reports of this being a problem in decades of unionization at more than 60 university campuses across the US.  Moreover, the more of us who have unions nationally, the more normal it becomes as part of life at large research universities like Columbia.  With a union, in the unlikely case something likes this occurs, a graduate worker would have the law, the institutional backing of the union and thousands of colleagues at their back. Unfortunately, without a union, we hear far too many stories of people who suffer abuse but feel there is no meaningful avenue of recourse, especially on issues like sexual harassment, which why we put on the forum recently on this issue.
The union believes strongly that faculty should refrain from making any comments on unionization, as whatever they say may influence a graduate worker’s opinion since they are our supervisors.  Our experience is that most faculty agree with that basic idea.  At NYU in 2013, when the administration strongly encouraged faculty to refrain from discussions on this issue, 98 percent of participating graduate workers voted “yes” for GSOC-UAW to be their union.  At Columbia, over 100 faculty signed a statement urging administration neutrality last year.

We have also done work to educate faculty about shared interests we have, such as federal research funding. Some number of faculty, as well as numerous academic professional societies, signed our petition to increase STEM research funding.  We are also proud that the UAW appears to be the only national union with an official position in support of increasing federal research funding.


The UAW is one of the strongest unions in the country.  It also represents 50,000 university workers across the US, including more grad student workers than any other union, hundreds of support staff at Columbia, as well as adjunct faculty and postdoctoral researchers.  The UAW brings decades of organizing and bargaining experience and expertise to our campaign.
UAW Local 2110 is a technical, office and professional local of the UAW which represents 4,000 workers in the New York City area including: graduate employees at NYU; contingent faculty at Barnard College; support staff at Columbia University, Barnard College and Teachers College; and employees at the Village Voice and Museum of Modern Art. UAW Local 2110 has won cutting-edge contracts at Columbia and elsewhere, fighting race and gender-based pay discrimination, winning child care subsidies, flex-time, paid family leave, domestic partner benefits, job security and health and safety protection.  Local 2110 is also the union that helped organize grad employees at NYU and won the first-ever grad employee union contract at a private university, twice (2002 and 2015).
Under UAW policy, no dues are paid until after a contract has been negotiated and approved in a democratic vote by RAs and TAs.  Dues in UAW Local 2110 are 2% of gross pay received from Columbia for work performed that is covered by the contract.  The dues rate can only be raised by a vote of the membership.  Dues are not paid on the monetary value of benefits such as health care premiums, tuition exemption, childcare benefits, etc.

Dues provide the financial resources necessary to have a strong union, including paying for legal costs, staffing, supplies, equipment, etc.
No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. In most contracts, since everyone in the bargaining unit must receive all of the benefits of the contract, non-members are generally required to pay a comparable “agency” fee, often described as a “fair share” fee, so the cost of representation is shared equally. Whether we do this at Columbia would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda and would be subject to negotiation with Columbia.

Most graduate worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to fight for the best possible contracts with the administration.
Dues cover all of the day to day cost of having a strong union, including paying for the best legal representation (such as that utilized in the NLRB case), staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies.   Dues also go toward the UAW Strike and Defense Fund, giving us leverage at the bargaining table because Columbia knows we would have the capacity to strike if necessary.   Dues also pay for the following:

  • Technical support for contract negotiations:
    • Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
    • Researchers who can help analyze University finances. Legal advice where necessary
    • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals in bargaining, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall contract campaign

  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the organizing staff and legal support for the GWC-UAW campaign is paid for by existing UAW members’ dues money)

  • Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]
Most of the day-to-day work enforcing the contract and representing our membership is provided by the local union; thus, Local 2110 keeps at least half of the dues.  The rest of the dues is allocated to the International Union (18%) and the Strike and Defense Fund (32%).  Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund, both the Local and the International Union receive an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate”.


While the vast majority of GWC-UAW organizers are volunteers, the union has hired a few student employees temporarily to work part-time on the campaign at certain points. Building our union requires a lot of resources, especially given the large number of research and teaching assistants at our university. One of the reasons we chose to work with the UAW originally was because of its commitment to utilize a small number of committed organizers from our bargaining unit as part-time staff when the work was heavy, in addition to UAW organizers who have experience in other higher education organizing and bargaining campaigns. If you are ever interested in working for the union, send us an email at
Bargaining committees are elected by the members of the bargaining unit they represent, who also determine the size and composition of the committee. Most memberships balance a need for a committee that is manageable in size and still representative of discipline, job title, etc..

By way of example, the bargaining committee at UConn had six members, who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education. At the University of California, they had two committee members per campus.
First, and most importantly, RAs and TAs share many common interests. For example, health care, family benefits, pay increases, protection against discrimination and sexual harassment, time off for vacation or other reasons, tuition and fee waivers, timely payment for work performed, protection against last-minute loss of appointments, international student rights, and a fair grievance procedure affect RAs and TAs all across campus and are typically central issues in contract negotiations regardless of who is on the bargaining committee.

Second, RAs and TAs will get to vote democratically to approve not only the initial bargaining goals prior to negotiations but also the final contract negotiated by the committee, which encourages democratic accountability.  In the recent University of California postdoc contract campaign, the most recent UAW academic example, a majority of all 6,200 postdocs voted in favor of the bargaining committee’s initial demands, which were based on extensive surveys, and voted to accept the final contract.

In electing our bargaining committee, we plan to  follow the example of other graduate unions in the UAW that have tended to balance a need for a committee that is manageable in size and still representative of discipline, job title, etc.  At NYU and UConn, several meetings were held soon after official union recognition to work out the size of the bargaining committee.  At UConn, they ended up electing six committee members who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, all the major disciplines on campus.  The contract they negotiated increased stipends; resulted in a new, and significantly improved, healthcare program; improved workload protections; reduced fees; included protections from discrimination; and, included provisions for job security.  When the final agreement was put to a vote, graduate assistants voted 99% in favor, with a majority of all those eligible voting yes.

We will do the same—soon after the election, we will hold meetings to determine the size and composition of the committee.  While we have examples from other universities, we will have to figure out what will work best at Columbia.
For our first contract, those union supporters working in the bargaining unit who have signed union authorization cards, would be eligible to vote in the ratification vote. At a ratification vote for a first contract it is customary to provide employees with the opportunity to sign up.
Local 2110 has union by-laws that lay out how the union is governed. Modifications to the bylaws can be made by membership vote. GWC-UAW as a bargaining unit can also develop its own unit bylaws to address issues that are specific to the unit.
To be a member of the union, you must have worked in the bargaining unit and paid dues. In a recent steward election, certain candidates who had not worked in union positions or ever paid dues, were deemed to be ineligible to run under the Local 2110 bylaws and the UAW constitution. These candidates have filed an appeal with the UAW (which they are entitled to do), and the appeal is being adjudicated. Ultimately, if either Local 2110 or the appealing candidates disagrees with the UAW’s decision, they can appeal it further to an outside Public Review Board, an independent body unique to the UAW, which will issue a binding decision.
Local 2110 is governed by a Joint Council composed of delegates from every workplace. The number of delegates each workplace has is based on the number of dues-paying members they have. If all 3,000 workers in GWC-UAW joined the union and paid dues, GWC would be entitled to 60 delegates to the Joint Council.
A member in the union at UC appealed the vote for numerous reasons, including that he thought the vote exceeded the Local Union’s authority under the democratic structure of the UAW Constitution. The UAW International Executive Board (IEB), and, subsequently, an independent review board unique to the UAW agreed that the vote exceeded the Local’s authority because positions on major political issues are set by the IEB, since it represents and has to balance the interests of hundreds of locals and 400,000 individual members across the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. In other words, the vote in California has no effect on the national position of the UAW. A little over 2,000 members, out of 400,000, have voted to support BDS.
Much of the appeal of the BDS vote in California revolved around interpretation of the Ethical Practices Code (EPC), a key component of the UAW Constitution that codifies the Union’s intent to promote internal democracy while also attempting to balance the interests of ALL members of the Union.  The key passage is the following.  “Each member shall be entitled to a full share in Union self-government. Each member shall have full freedom of speech and the right to participate in the democratic decisions of the Union. Subject to reasonable rules and regulations, each member shall have the right to run for office, to nominate and to vote in free, fair and honest elections. In a democratic union, as in a democratic society, every member has certain rights but s/he also must accept certain corresponding obligations. Each member shall have the right freely to criticize the policies and personalities of Union officials; however, this does not include the right to undermine the Union as an institution; to vilify other members of the Union and its elected officials or to carry on activities with complete disregard of the rights of other members and the interests of the Union; to subvert the Union in collective bargaining or to advocate or engage in dual unionism.”

The UAW definition of democracy also encompasses a commitment, in Article 2 of the Constitution, to further “the improvement of general economic and social conditions in the United States of America, Canada, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and generally in the nations of the world.”

The UAW is unique in the US labor movement in that it allows appeals like the one from the member in California to go to the independent PRB, so that a neutral party decides whether the UAW has followed its own democratic procedures.
Like in any democratic organization, disagreements sometimes happen within the UAW.  In the late 1990s, there were some internal disputes at UMass and at UC Santa Barbara.  Fortunately, the UAW has democratic structures in place to address such disagreements and to ensure the rights of all members.  In 2004, as the anti-union campaign raised questions about these events in the lead-up to a unionization vote at the University of Washington, members from UMass and UCSB addressed the situation.  You can read their comments below.

February 29, 2004

“I am a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the President of UAW Local 2322, the union that represents graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Our union was recognized in 1991 and has bargained six contracts since that time. We have been able to negotiate dramatic improvements for our members on wages, healthcare, childcare, and other issues.

As you move closer to your election you may hear negative things about the UAW at UMass.

There were problems in the local in the past. People in the local couldn’t resolve their disputes, and some democratic practices were not being followed. But the UAW, the larger organization that we are part of, didn’t let that situation disintegrate. At the request of members of our local, a UAW staff member assisted us in getting things back on track by allowing our democratically elected leadership to take charge. At the time I was skeptical of the role that the UAW staff might play, but I have to say that it was the best thing for the local. The future of Local 2322 is bright. We have had a number of great accomplishments recently – a new contract and organizing victories for more campus workers. I want to encourage you to vote yes in your election and look forward to welcoming you into the UAW.”

James A.W. Shaw
President Local 2322 United Auto Workers
Northampton, MA

February 28, 2004

“We are the current elected UC Santa Barbara leadership of UAW Local 2865. We urge the ASEs at University of Washington to vote yes for GSEAC/UAW in your upcoming election. We are proud to be members of the UAW.

Like most democratic organizations, we have had some internal disagreements. In the late 1990’s a small group at our campus disagreed over bargaining goals and strategies. The group, including some of the elected bargaining team members, wanted to have the right to strike over grievances, in addition to the remedy of binding arbitration, in the contract. This was not a position supported by the Santa Barbara membership in bargaining surveys or organizing contacts, nor by the rest of the elected bargaining teams and members at UC’s seven other campuses. The Santa Barbara bargaining team members resigned over this disagreement. The contract was subsequently ratified by all UC campuses, including Santa Barbara. Since then, we and elected leadership at the other seven UC campuses have negotiated a second contract, also ratified by members at all campuses.”

Brian Campbell, UCSB Campus Unit Chair, UAW Local 2865, Geological Sciences
Nina Kilham, UCSB Campus Recording Secretary, UAW Local 2865, Geography
Susie Keller, UCSB Campus Head Steward, UAW Local 2865, English


The National Labor Relations Board has decided that undergraduate teaching assistants are included. If you want to sign up, contact us at
TA and and RA working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions! At a large research university like Columbia, TAs and RAs take on a significant portion of the teaching and grading responsibilities for undergraduate instruction. They conduct cutting-edge research as part of world-renowned research labs whose presence at Columbia also enhances the quality of undergraduate education. In order to maintain these standards of excellence it is crucial for Columbia undergrads to recognize TA and RA labor and support these workers’ right to negotiate a fair contract with the University through collective bargaining, so our TAs and RAs have the time, energy, and resources to devote to our undergraduate experience.
Well-endowed universities like Columbia don’t need to raise tuition or lower financial aid to accommodate fair working conditions. Through fundraising and investments, Columbia’s endowment has grown to over $8 billion. Columbia has the money to fairly compensate the people who keep it running without adversely affecting other student populations. If you are a student worker, having a union allows you to negotiate your working conditions directly with Columbia. Having a union on campus also gives all students a greater voice in issues that will positively affect everyone at the university (for example, addressing problems with payroll and advocating against tuition increases across the board).

There has been no research showing that student unions raise the price of tuition. At institutions such as the University of Washington and the University of California, graduate worker unions have been instrumental in helping to campaign against tuition increases.