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Columbia’s War On Labor

The elite university's refusal to bargain with a student union could have far-reaching consequences.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The members of GWC-UAW Local 2110 ended a week-long strike at midnight on Monday. Their employer still has not recognized their union, which is demanding, among other things, “livable wages,” “adequate benefits,” and “clear workload expectations.” The employer here isn’t Nissan or Tesla, or some other industrial giant; it’s Columbia University, and the workers in question are research and teaching assistants who are enrolled in the school. Most are graduate students, though some are undergraduates with campus jobs. The university insists that they are not workers at all.

The National Labor Relations Board disagrees, though this reflects a relatively recent turn of events. In 2004, under President George W. Bush, the NLRB ruled that student workers at private universities did not have the right to collectively bargain. In 2016, thanks to the efforts of Columbia’s would-be unionizers, the NLRB overturned that decision, and restored collective bargaining rights to resident assistants and teaching assistants on private campuses. Columbia, meanwhile, has fought the union for the last four years. “We seek review by the federal courts to decide this still-unsettled question without regard to shifting political winds,” it says on a website it has dedicated to the purpose of fighting the union.

Columbia tells the public that it wants a decision unaffected by political winds, but that’s inaccurate. By refusing to bargain with the union, it has abandoned student workers to those very winds. As Alex Press recently noted at Jewish Currents, the university intends to force student workers to file an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB—which is currently dominated by Trump administration appointees. The NLRB could overturn its last ruling, restore the older status quo, and quash unionization efforts at private universities nationwide.

Catherine Fisk, who teaches labor and employment law at the University of California, Berkeley, told me that Columbia’s tactic is known as a “technical refusal.” “The way that the statute and the regulatory agency are structured means that the NLRB’s decision as to who can form a union and bargain is not immediately reviewable by a federal court,” she explained.

Columbia’s decision could have far-reaching consequences. Even if the NLRB rules in the union’s favor, Columbia could appeal and take the matter to a district federal court. Either party could then appeal a ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. That would be a particularly risky move for the union. A federal court ruling would only establish precedent in the region under its remit. But a Supreme Court ruling would establish nationwide precedent. Chances are good, with a conservative-leaning Court, that the ruling would be in Columbia’s favor.

Viewed from a certain angle, Columbia’s politics would appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, its administrators have presented themselves as liberal foes of the Trump administration, opposing, for example, the Muslim ban. On the other, they hope to break unionization efforts by putting the fate of student workers in the hands of a Trump NLRB. But Columbia’s position is consistent: Trump’s travel bans hurt business, particularly for universities that want to attract foreign students, and so will unionization. According to Columbia, the average doctoral candidate will pay $44,864 in tuition alone every year; the average master’s student will pay $54,360. The university’s endowment sits somewhere around $10 billion. It can pay student workers a living wage.

Despite the lofty rhetoric about training the next generation of scholars, Columbia administrators have behaved like typical bosses. In this, Columbia is little different from McDonald’s or Wendy’s or any of the other tentacled corporations that most good liberals agree unduly suppress workers’ wages. University working conditions may be less physically dangerous, but its workers are still unable to meet basic needs. When it comes to paying for child care, health care, and rent, the McDonald’s fry cook has a lot in common with the Columbia University PhD student.

Columbia’s union-busting rests on the argument that student workers aren’t workers at all, but are instead future scholars in the making. This is half-true. Organizing students does look quite a bit different from organizing factories: Student workforces are naturally in flux, as people graduate or otherwise leave programs. The work they perform changes, too. A PhD candidate in the hard sciences may have regular lab hours, but workloads for teaching assistants can vary from semester to semester. That same PhD candidate in hard sciences may experience physically dangerous working conditions on campus, while an English PhD may not.

Work, however, is work, no matter the academic discipline. Graduate students may elect to enroll in school, and receive an education as they teach undergraduates and grade papers, but they’re hardly the first class of workers to exchange labor for skill training. Columbia’s union-busting is a bid to prevent a sense of class consciousness from taking root in its student workforce. By uniting anyway, graduate students have demonstrated that the very consciousness the university seeks to weed out has instead taken root.  

Their action has implications beyond Columbia’s campus, and indeed beyond any campus in the U.S. higher education occupies a starring role in this country’s moralizing to the poor. Go to school, get a degree, and get a job: that’s the drumbeat from kindergarten to senior year. It’s a seductively simple formula, one that is belied by reality. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, average tuition and fees at public universities hit $16,188 in 2014-15; at private non-profit universities, that figure was $41,970. That’s an increase of 33 percent and 26 percent, respectively, since the 2004-2005 academic year.

Meanwhile, the academic job market has cratered, particularly in the liberal arts and the social sciences. A PhD student can spend upwards of five years in school, much of it working, with no guarantee of a job at the end. Higher education is becoming a luxury, and student workers, not Columbia’s endowment, are paying the price for it.

By refusing to bargain with its union, and by deploying tactics that could quell unionization on private campuses everywhere, Columbia has chosen to embody the worst stereotypes of elite schools. Its actions could help concentrate higher education in the upper class, and contribute to the entrenchment of a permanent underclass. Wealth and poverty are usually hereditary states. The likelihood that education will lift a poor person out of one into the other partly depends on the actions of universities themselves. And even if an individual university chooses to be a good actor, it can’t do much to rectify problems that are prevalent nationwide. As the saying goes, the entire system is rigged.

Though much-maligned by conservatives as liberal shelters for intolerants, universities like Columbia, faced with the prospect of an organized labor force, have shown their true colors. Rather than pay its graduate students more money, or guarantee them health insurance they can actually use, Columbia hired a union-busting law firm and plans to throw students to the mercies of the NLRB. “By their fixer ye shall know them,” wrote Bruce Robbins in Dissent. We have learned a lot about Columbia this week, and even more about higher education in America.