By JoAnne Powers, August 24, 2016
The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that Columbia University graduate students, and grad student workers at all private U.S. universities, have the right to form a union and collectively bargain over wages and working conditions. The board has flip-flopped on the rights of student workers as partisan control of the board has changed under the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations.
Olga Brudastova, a PhD student at Columbia and an organizer with the Graduate Workers of Columbia University, Local 2110 of the United Autoworkers, says the students are ready to move forward:
[Olga Brudastova]: “It’s been a two-and-a-half year’s long campaign. When we started it, we were hoping to still be in grad school to witness it, so, of course, it’s really exciting. The majority of grad student workers want a union. We expect our relationship with the administration to be much easier, much less frustrating, and to have less anxieties in our workly life…and to establish a much more democratic process to determine our work conditions, our life conditions and our relationship with the university. A lot of details are still to be determined, but nevertheless we are prepared because we were expecting this decision.”
Felix Owusu, previously a graduate student union member of Local 2865 at the University of California-Berkeley, is now an organizer with the Harvard Grad Student Union, also affiliated with the UAW:
[Felix Owusu]: “Having students have a voice, sort of in a democratic way to express priorities and have an actual seat at the table, really, to be able to talk with the administration and collectively come to these decisions. Now we have the opportunity to do that in the same way that lots of other workers are able to across the country, and, so that’s really important to me.”
Columbia recently announced plans to raise the stipends of graduate students by 17 percent over the next four years, similar to many other private universities increasing stipends and benefits for graduate students in the run-up to the NLRB decision.
[Olga Brudastova]: “We cannot trust it more, that the timing of these increases and improvements is very crucial, and it is not possible to say that the administration is neutral or supporting of our efforts when they spend so much money and so many resources on anti-union tactics and they fight us at every step.”
Brudostova says that given the partisan history of NLRB decisions on this matter, a Hillary Clinton victory in November’s presidential election is necessary in order to protect workers’ rights to organize. Owusu of the HGSU, however, says his status as a worker doesn’t depend on the board’s decisions:
[Felix Owusu]: “The way I think about it is, what I do day to day whether I count as a graduate student as a worker, that doesn’t change every four years or every eight years. Right now this decision is reflecting the reality that what we do day in, day out is work. That hasn’t changed. It was the same when I was allowed to be in a union because I was under state law at U.C. Berkeley. It’s the same now. I’m doing the exact same job. Some arbitrary distinction up until now has been saying that some people can unionize and some people can’t. You’re a worker here and you’re not there. I’m not terribly worried that people will come back to this decision in the future. The decision right now is very clear. The fundamental truth about what we do and whether or not we’re workers is clear and has been clearly stated.”