Provost John Coatsworth’s recent email and FAQ make more clear than ever that the Columbia administration wants us to vote “no” on unionization this semester.  Obviously, they would prefer to maintain their ability to unilaterally change our working conditions, like when they made cuts to our dental benefits for this academic year or when they withdraw TA jobs at the last minute.  In other words, they would prefer to avoid us having the kind of collective voice that unionized academic workers have used to win improvements in contracts at other universities. After all, they have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an outside law firm to fight our union rights for the last two years.

Unfortunately, our administrators have chosen to cloak their opposition in the guise of moderation, producing a supposedly neutral FAQ that is heavy on speculation and light on the facts.

To set the record straight, we have taken the time to share some of the facts that Provost Coatsworth omitted. A majority of graduate workers across campus have supported GWC-UAW since 2014: when graduate workers come together, we harness our collective power to make our lives better and our university more democratic!  We expect they will disseminate more misinformation to graduate RAs and TAs and their faculty advisors leading up to the election, now that we have won the historic right to choose collective bargaining through GWC-UAW.


“Be Informed” Columbia wants us to vote against unionization.
“Given the ongoing national conversation on this issue and the recent National Labor Relations Board decision, the Office of the Provost has created a list of questions that often arise from such discussions.” Columbia has plagiarized from academic administrators at other private universities who have created a set of questions aimed at casting doubt on the efficacy of collective bargaining. For the original version of this FAQ, look at the University of Chicago website.
“What specifically is a union in the United States?”

“A union is an organization that represents a specific group of employees. This group is called a “bargaining unit.” A union negotiates on behalf of this group of represented employees to establish collective terms and conditions of employment such as pay and benefits. While public employee unions are subject to state labor laws, most private employers and employees, including those at private colleges and universities, are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).”


Although we have won numerous improvements from Columbia in response to the last two years of organizing, the administration has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to block our union rights so it can continue to unilaterally change our conditions, like cutting our dental benefits for this year.
“How do unions obtain the right to represent employees?”

“Union representation is typically determined by a secret-ballot election in which those eligible to be in the bargaining unit are invited to vote “yes” or “no” on the question of union representation. If a simple majority of those who vote choose union representation, all eligible voters (and those who will follow them into union-represented positions in the future) would be exclusively represented by the union in their dealings with the University concerning pay, benefits, and other “terms and conditions of employment.”


Since 2014, a majority of grad workers have supported GWC-UAW, which led to many improvements so far and now the historic NLRB decision. The reason Columbia has opposed us and wants us to vote no is because when a majority votes yes, they will have a legal obligation to bargain with us.
“How is the bargaining unit determined?”

“The National Labor Relations Board determines the composition of the bargaining unit. The criterion used to determine whether a group of workers share enough in common to constitute an appropriate bargaining unit is the concept of a “community of interests.”


Columbia spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an outside law firm attempting to exclude all of us from having the right to choose collective bargaining.  But the NLRB ruled that all Columbia RAs and TAs have union rights.
“What is the election process?”

“A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal government agency. The question of who is eligible to vote has yet to be determined by the National Labor Relations Board. Voting would likely take place at an easily accessible location on campus on a specified day and during specified hours.”


Columbia could have voluntarily agreed to a free and fair election, as NYU did in 2013, instead of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to block our union rights at the NLRB.
“Who should vote?”

“Every eligible person should vote because the election outcome is determined by the majority of those who vote, not by a majority of those eligible to vote. In other words, union representation is decided only by those who vote, yet the result will be binding for voters and non-voters alike. The regional director of the NLRB will determine who is eligible to vote in the coming weeks.”

Columbia hopes we vote “no.” But a majority of us have supported GWC-UAW since 2014 and a big “yes” vote will enable us to negotiate more improvements since, as we have learned, when we join together Columbia can do better. Now we would be able to put improvements in a binding contract that Columbia cannot change when it wants to, like the cuts to dental benefits this year.
“Could students “opt out” of the union by not voting?”

“No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit, including students who do not vote, students who vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and all future students who will be members of the bargaining unit.”

Just like a US presidential election, you cannot opt out by not voting.  In this context, a yes vote would make the union the “exclusive bargaining representative” meaning an obligation to represent all RAs and TAs equally regardless of how they voted and, more importantly, that all RAs and TAs would receive the benefits under a contract once ratified. So, any pay increases, improved health benefits and other rights and protections, as have been negotiated at other universities, would be available to all regardless of how they voted. The university would prefer if the Union did not represent all RAs and TAs because it could then play different groups against one another, which gives the administration more power. For example, it was only after GWC-UAW started organizing that Columbia extended the family benefits beyond only the GSAS PhD students.
“Will students have access prior to a vote on unionization to a draft of the proposed contract or to a list of the provisions that would be negotiated?”

“No. The National Labor Relations Act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms of employment.” Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election. The union’s agenda and priorities for such collective bargaining are typically determined by union leadership in consultation with its members.”


After the union is formed, all workers would be eligible to vote to elect a bargaining committee, who will use surveys and other feedback to develop an initial set of bargaining goals that are voted on by RAs and TAs. The bargaining committee would then negotiate with the University to pursue those goals.  During the negotiations, we would develop a participatory campaign to support our committee in achieving improvements at the bargaining table.  Once our committee reaches a tentative agreement it feels is satisfactory, we would vote on approving it as our first contract. More than 2,000 RAs and TAs have already filled out initial surveys.
“If a union wins an election, will graduate student stipends and teaching income increase? What about benefits?”

“We do not know. In a unionized setting, wages, hours, and other terms and conditions are subject to collective bargaining. Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase.”


Columbia wants us to doubt ourselves.  But what we do know is organizing works and that collective bargaining gives us more power to make improvements.  When NYU graduate workers organized and negotiated their first contract in 2002, they won a 38% increase to minimum stipends and fully-paid health insurance for the first time.  Columbia immediately matched the NYU stipend rates in response to efforts to organize a union by graduate workers on our campus.  Without collective bargaining, Columbia just made unilateral cuts to our dental benefits. The long-term effect of organizing and bargaining is that a funded GSAS PhD student who teaches two semesters at NYU will make nearly $38,000 for the 2016-2017 nine-month academic year.
“What are union dues and how are they calculated?”

“Sometimes dues are a flat annual rate, while other times they are a percentage of wages. We do not know what dues would be. At New York University (NYU), the United Auto Workers (UAW) charges its members 2% of total compensation during the semesters in which a student is employed in a position covered by the union contract. At NYU, the union contract provides a mechanism by which the dues are automatically deducted from every paycheck. According to the UAW, total compensation for the purposes of calculating dues includes wages from “union work” (i.e., from serving as a teaching assistant or research assistant) and the NYU funding package. In addition to these dues, the UAW charges each member an initiation fee of approximately $50 (depending on pay grade). This one-time fee is charged by the union to all new members. Depending on the terms of the labor contract, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research position.”


Dues provide critical resources for representing ourselves: enforcing our rights under the contract when there are grievances, support for contract negotiations, supporting other workers organizing and political action. While Columbia suggests this is unknown, dues in UAW Local 2110 are 2% of gross pay received from Columbia for work performed that is covered by the contract. This amount would only increase by a vote of the membership.  Most contracts include a provision where non-members pay also because the union represents all RAs and TAs, all RAs and TAs would get the benefits of the contract, and it is unfair to expect a subset to pay for the representation of all.
“If students vote to unionize, how much would Columbia students pay in dues to the UAW?”

“Union dues for a Columbia student union would be determined by the union itself and the rate is therefore subject to change. At New York University (NYU), these dues are automatically deducted each month from the paycheck of all bargaining unit members. To get an estimate of that total amount for Columbia, we could apply the 2% annual dues rate used at NYU to the total compensation paid last year to graduate students on appointment in the Medical Center, SEAS, and the Arts & Sciences at Columbia. This calculation would yield a figure of over $1.7 million in dues paid to the United Auto Workers (UAW) by Columbia students—more than $550 per student. If the UAW also charges each student the same $50 initiation fee it charges at NYU, Columbia students would have paid more than an additional $150,000 to the UAW.”

Dues provide the resources that allow us to have an equal relationship with Columbia and also to have a strong voice on policy issues that affect our lives as students and workers – such as federal research funding, gender equity, the OPT STEM extension, student debt, civil rights, etc.  We pay no dues until we democratically approve a contract negotiated by our elected bargaining committee.  Currently, Columbia decides unilaterally how much we pay to them in fees for any number of things, and in many schools on campus, RAs and TAs still pay the bulk of their tuition as well.  Columbia would like to distract us with fears about paying dues to the UAW so we lose sight of the question on the table: do we want to negotiate our working conditions as equals or continue to let Columbia make unilateral decisions on our behalf?
“Many state universities have unions. Wouldn’t it just be the same here?”

“Not necessarily. There are two reasons why comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that insulate academic decisions from the collective bargaining process; that is to say, there are protections in the applicable law that prevent unions from involvement in academic matters at public universities. Federal labor law has not been tailored to address the needs of student unions in higher education, and therefore does not prevent explicitly union involvement and contractual bargaining over academic matters. Second, state labor laws typically prohibit strikes.”

Columbia does not want to bargain over any topic. Columbia also wants to hide the fact that the union and NYU worked out an agreement and the results include a provision by which a funded GSAS PhD student teaching two semesters will make nearly $38,000 for the 2016-2017 nine-month academic year.
“What matters could a student union bargain over?”

“The National Labor Relations Board requires employers and unions to bargain with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment,” concepts that the NLRB and the federal courts have not interpreted in the context of students in private higher education. New York University’s graduate student teachers and some research assistants currently are represented by the United Auto Workers. After 18 months of contract negotiations, the UAW and NYU entered into a collective bargaining agreement (contract). The terms and conditions of employment covered by the contract include wages and stipends, working hours, health insurance, travel and meal expenses, vacation days, leaves of absence, job postings and access to offices. The contract also contains a “just cause” termination procedure, and a no-strike clause. The labor contract vests “exclusively” in NYU the right to plan, direct, and control the university’s mission, programs and objectives; to determine the content and process for performance evaluations; to determine when instruction is delivered; and in recognition that such matter involve “academic judgment,” the right to determine “who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching.” The agreement exempts all disputes over such matters from the grievance/arbitration process. The difficulty would lie, of course, in determining unambiguously what is a labor as opposed to an academic issue.”


Columbia would prefer to decide unilaterally whether to bargain over any issue.
“Would the University be able to make exceptions to provisions in the contract to accommodate the particular needs of individual students in the unit?”

“Collective bargaining agreements focus on students as a group, not as individuals. Unless such exceptions are provided for in the labor contract or otherwise agreed upon by the union, they are not permitted.”

The contract would be a mutual agreement, not something “permitted” by the Union. If there are departmental, disciplinary or job title specificities that we democratically decide are priorities, we would bargain for those and if we reached agreement with the university, they would be in the contract. For example, UAW contracts at the University of Washington and University of Connecticut have provisions that specifically apply to RAs whose paid work overlaps with their own academic work such that they are free to be in the lab for as many hours as they desire.
“Would status as an international graduate student affect eligibility to be included in the union?”

“No. International student status does not affect eligibility for union membership. All members of the bargaining unit would belong to the union regardless of citizenship status.”

The GWC-UAW international student working group has been highly active and won numerous improvements from the administration already, such as increased summer funding and elimination of the international student fee, and pushing Columbia to be accountable for its negligence on handling of international student worker taxes.  It has also held workshops on visa and tax issues and helped successfully advocate for the OPT STEM extension.
“What if an individual student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?”

“Yes. Collective bargaining is, by definition, collective in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for explicitly in the contract.”

This is why collective bargaining is democratic, so we avoid any such provisions.  Columbia wants to preserve its ability to determine all policies, which we currently are bound by.  In contracts at the 60 campuses across the US that have unions, Columbia has apparently not found such “objectionable” provisions to include in their FAQ.
“If an election results in representation by a union, could there be another election in the future to consider the question of union representation again?”

“Union elections are not like political elections, which occur regularly to determine voters’ representatives and opinions. Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely and will represent all students who will matriculate in the future unless the union is ‘decertified.’ The process to decertify a union is complex, and may take several years, and cannot be commenced until one year after the election, or while any collective bargaining agreement is in place.”


Because employers like Columbia make it so difficult to establish unions in the first place and would prefer to maintain total decision-making power, there is a process that must be followed to decertify a union. Columbia also neglects to point out that if the union loses the election, another election cannot be held for at least one year. These two provisions work together to balance power between workers and employers.
“If research assistants in the sciences are included in the bargaining unit, could their hours be capped?”

“We do not know. To date, research assistants in the sciences have not been included in a bargaining unit at a private university. However, the Columbia University election petition seeks to represent research assistants in the sciences, including those funded by federal training grants. In addition, since working hours are a “mandatory subject of bargaining,” caps on the number of hours students in the sciences could work each week would be subject to negotiation with the union. Research assistants in the sciences have been included in the student bargaining units at public institution and some of those collective bargaining agreements include maximum hour limitations for work performed by research assistant in their capacity as workers. All work in a lab could be considered as “hours,” and therefore subject to a cap, regardless of whether the work is in service of a project with a principal investigator or on the student’s own research.”

Again, Columbia attempts to create fear of the unknown, even though they point to no example where this has happened. RAs at the University of Washington and University of Connecticut did not negotiate any limits on how many hours one can spend in the lab at the bench.  Rather, they built in a protection for individuals who may feel they are being overworked.  It’s up to the individual RA to decide if their hours are unfair.
“If there were a union, could students sit on department or school committees?”

“It is hard to say. We do know that a union would be the exclusive voice to the University for all students it represents on pay, work hours, and other employment matters related to teaching and research assistantships. This means that current avenues of communication between  student teaching assistants and research assistants and the University through departmental or school leadership may likely be more limited.”

It is not hard to say. The only way students could be barred from committees is if Columbia barred them from doing so. And if it were hard to say, wouldn’t Columbia provide examples of where this has happened elsewhere?  At the more than 60 university campuses that already have unions, many graduate students participate in the union and student organizations and often these organizations work together on important campus issues—just as GWC and GSAC have both advocated for things like family improvements, international student issues, etc.  And the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, the largest affiliate body of graduate student government bodies, wrote an amicus brief supporting our case for union rights at the NLRB.
“What is the union’s role in the grievance process?”

A union would likely negotiate a contractual grievance process, but there is no certainty that it would be fundamentally different from existing procedures.

The union would have elected leaders who provide critical help representing RAs and TAs when they have grievances. Check out examples of successful use of the union grievance procedure at the University of Washington. Virtually every contract has a provision where the union can take a grievance, if unresolved, to a NEUTRAL arbitrator, which Columbia clearly would like to avoid because it is clearly “fundamentally different” than the current system that they control.
“Can a union bargain over student fees?”

“It is not clear that student fees are a matter over which a union may require the University to bargain, since these are charges paid by all students—graduate and undergraduate—regardless of whether they are serving as research or teaching assistants.”

In response to our organizing, Columbia has already reduced or eliminated certain fees for grad workers, but would prefer not bargain over such issues.  While unions do not bargain over the rate of tuition or fees, virtually every graduate worker union contract in the US contains a provision covering remission or waiver of fees and/or tuition as a benefit of employment. Many unions have made major improvements on this issue. At UConn, for example, the first contract will end up saving a graduate assistant nearly $900 per year as a result of fee waivers won in negotiations. In other cases, like at the University of Washington, the union has helped protect RAs and TAs from having to pay newly-created fees, such as an international student fee that was created in 2012.
“What impact could a union have on off-site research activities (such as conference/workshop attendance, field work, or research at other universities) that are essential for a student’s academic program?”

“We do not know. If such activities are linked to your work as a research assistant or teaching assistant, funding for them could be subject to negotiations with the union.”


Columbia implies that some negative effect might happen but again points to no example. Many unions have negotiated a provision for reimbursement of any “work-related” required travel. We will decide what to bargain for at Columbia.
“Will having a union contract increase the funds available to schools to fund their students?”

“All schools at Columbia fund their own students from the income they receive from tuition, donations, outside grants, and endowments (if they have them). These sources of income vary significantly by school, but each school would have to bear individually the fixed costs associated with a union contract. The costs of a universal union contract would affect each school differently, yet all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs.”


Columbia will fund whatever we negotiate and agree to in a contract. They obviously have the ability to increase funds for any program, as they have recently done in response to our organizing in Social Work, Journalism and by expanding the family benefits to PhD students in all programs instead of just GSAS.
“What happens if the union decides to call a strike?”

“If the union calls a strike, union members could be fined by the union if found to be not in compliance with the strike action. Academic activities regarded as work by the union contract such as teaching and research would be suspended for the duration of the strike, which might delay a student’s time-to-degree or research agenda.”


98% of contracts are negotiated without a strike.  Strikes are a last resort as an action to achieve an objective, though intransigent employers often force workers to prepare for a strike in order to achieve a fair contract, as happened at NYU in 2015 when the union and the university reached an agreement in advance of actually going on strike. Strikes also only occur after a democratic vote–in the UAW, it takes a 2/3 majority voting to authorize a strike. No grad worker has ever been fined for not participating in a strike—this is just an attempt to create fear so that we will vote against having a union.
“If not through unionization, how can students have their concerns heard and addressed?”

“The Graduate School Advisory Council (GSAC) comprises representatives from all schools who offer graduate programs at Columbia, and is led by a Steering Committee elected by those student representatives. The GSAC Steering Committee meets regularly with the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and with the Provost to communicate student needs and concerns to the administration.

Furthermore, all graduate and professional schools have student government organizations whose purpose it is to maintain fruitful communication with their faculty and dean. These close collaborations have resulted in significant enhancements in the lives of our students in the last ten years.”

While groups like GSAC have advocated for years and play an important role on campus, the pace of improvements at Columbia has increased dramatically since Fall 2014 when GWC started organizing. While these improvements are a positive thing, Columbia’s unilateral cuts to dental benefits this year shows that only through collective bargaining can we both win improvements and secure them in a binding contract. Participants from GSAC themselves have made this very point.
“Can faculty and students speak to one another about unionization?”

“Academic freedom allows all members of the Columbia community to express their views on any and all subjects. As a practical matter, though, rules that generally govern communication between “employees” and their managers and supervisors must be followed by faculty when addressing union-related issues with student assistants. This does not mean that faculty cannot express their opinions about these issues. Members of the faculty have the right to express their opinion on these subjects as long as they do so in a manner that avoids what may be considered to be “threats, interrogations, promises of benefits, or surveillance.” Schools and departments may decide to hold general meetings to discuss the subject, and individual faculty may speak to individual students, as long as the exchange happens in an open setting (e.g., not in a faculty member’s office). Please see a more detailed description of these constraints.”


Academic freedom does not mean that those who have power over others should influence an important decision like whether or not to vote yes for the union.  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the leading national advocate for academic freedom, supports the right of RAs and TAs to choose for themselves on the question of unionization.  The current AAUP national vice president has in fact attacked Columbia’s FAQ and its efforts to draw faculty into defeating our effort to form a union.