Graduate student employees at Columbia University have entered their third week on strike for union recognition. Teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants disappeared from Columbia’s classes and laboratories when they walked off the job on April 19.
The strike has sparked discussion at other colleges, including the University of Chicago, which have graduate students as teaching and research assistants who teach classes, including sections and labs, assist professors, grade assignments or exams, or work in labs.
The graduate students have been fighting for union status at Columbia under the Graduate Student Employees United/UAW Local 2110 (GSEU). The National Labor Relations Board ruled for the grad students in 2002, a decision which is under appeal by Columbia’s administration. The university administration has argued that TAs are getting “vocational training” and are therefore not entitled to the same benefits as other Columbia workers.
Picket lines have seen turnout gradually increase since the start of the protest. On April 29, hundreds of the protesters and their supporters marched through Columbia’s campus.
Columbia’s official policy is to wait until the NLRB rules on its appeal. As finals draw near for students at the University, Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley has tried to minimize disruptions in undergraduate students’ schedules by demanding that all students receive marks and that seniors’ grades be reported in time for graduation. Columbia’s Core directors have also gotten more lecturers to teach in the classes usually taught by graduate students.
Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, spoke publicly about the strike on May 3, saying that the University will wait for the NLRB to rule on its appeal. “My position…is that the graduate students and the administration will be better if we do not have a union acting as an intermediary between graduate students and the faculty,” Bollinger said to the Columbia Spectator, the school’s newspaper, adding that the University can do nothing to speed up the appeals process.
At the University of Chicago, the population of graduate students is nearly double that of the undergraduates, at approximately 8,000 to 4,000.
Steve Klass, the vice-president and dean of students in the University, said that graduate TAs in Chicago have not formed a union and are not seeking to unionize. According to Klass, very few universities have unions for graduate TAs. Typically, he added, a graduate student union evolves from the culture and history of specific institutions and the nature of graduate student life, training and employment options at different colleges.
“Opportunities to teach are considered by students to be important and graduate students see them as part of their training for academic life.” Klass said. ”At the same time, it is also important to this institution that our students complete their dissertation work as quickly as possible, without being distracted or sidetracked with lots of teaching assignments. We also value the presence of full-time faculty in the classroom. I suspect that we probably have a smaller percentage of our graduate students filling these roles than at other institutions.”
Christian Pinawin, a first-year graduate student in the German department, will TA for a German undergraduate class next year. He believed that a graduate student union would benefit the University, as many graduate student employees still lack many benefits.
“I think that forming a union may help increase awareness of the concerns of the graduate student community.” Pinawin said. “If we were to approach the university administration as a union we might be more successful in getting the reforms that we would like passed, such as university-subsidized health care.”