Columbia vs. United Auto Workers

Graduate assistants of the Ivy League, unite!


People walk outside the Library of Columbia University in the Harlem borough of New York.
People walk outside the Library of Columbia University in the Harlem borough of New York. PHOTO: EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

University administrators are getting a splendid little education in labor politics. Behold Columbia University’s battle with the United Auto Workers, which is trying to unionize graduate students who are also teaching assistants. Columbia this week declared that it is taking the fight to court.

The National Labor Relation Board in 2016 overturned a Bush -era ruling and allowed Columbia teaching and research assistants to unionize. Grad students voted 1,602 to 623 in favor of the UAW. Columbia responded that the lack of a voter ID requirement should invalidate the election.

The NLRB, which was intermittently under Democratic control last year due to Republican vacancies, disagreed. After grad students in December demanded to collectively bargain, administrators told the union to shove off. Hmmm. Is Columbia President Lee Bollinger a closet Republican? 

On Tuesday Columbia announced it would challenge the union’s certification in federal court. Some “among us are deeply concerned about what it means to have an outside party involved in what are ultimately academic and intellectual judgments by faculty members,” wrote Provost John Coatsworth.

The union denounced Mr. Coatsworth’s “audacious proclamation, showing that the University would rather break the law than to recognize us as workers.” Like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Mr. Bollinger stands accused of stripping workers of their collective-bargaining rights.

We sympathize with Columbia’s concern that unions could disrupt education and research, not to mention raise costs. For instance, a collective-bargaining agreement could limit the number of hours that teaching assistants may spend grading assignments. Professors might also have to do more work if assistants go on strike.

But universities get the unions they deserve, and some exploit grad students who are compensated with “tuition waivers” that probably don’t cover the cost of their labor. These in-kind payments encourage universities to enroll more graduate students even if there is little demand in the job market for their degrees.

The NLRB reversed course on whether grad students can unionize during both the Bush and Obama Administrations, and a new Republican majority may do so again. Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago are also fighting unions. As the legal fight continues, perhaps university administrators will unite in solidarity to endorse state right-to-work legislation that forbids forced unionization.

Appeared in the February 2, 2018, print edition.

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