Be Informed

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.


Background Information on Unions

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 employees to establish collective terms and conditions of employment such as pay and benefits.

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.

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."


Establishing Union Representation

A representation election is a secret-ballot election conducted and supervised by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal government agency. The National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a union election on the Columbia campuses to take place on the 7th and 8th of December. The majority of those voting will decide whether student research and teaching assistants will henceforth be represented by Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers.

Please see “Where to Vote” for details on the times, locations, and eligibility to vote in the upcoming election.

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.

No. The results of any election would bind everyone in the bargaining unit.

According to federal law, joining a union must be a voluntary decision. Typically, individuals who are represented in a bargaining unit but do not join are required to pay an agency fee, generally equivalent to the dues amount.

Once a union is certified as the exclusive representative of a bargaining unit, it remains so indefinitely. The process to decertify a union is complex, may take several years, and cannot be commenced until one year after the election, or while any collective bargaining agreement is in place.

No. All members of the bargaining unit would belong to the union regardless of citizenship status.


Union Dues and Agency Fees

An 'open shop' is where a union has been certified as the bargaining representative, but individuals may opt out of joining and are not required to pay agency fees. Historically this union has not agreed to open shops. At NYU, where graduate students are represented by the United Auto Workers, students who choose not be become dues-paying members of the United Auto Workers must pay an agency fee equivalent to the dues and initiation fees for union membership.

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. Depending on the terms of the labor contract, failure to pay dues could result in dismissal from a teaching or research position.

Union dues for a Columbia student union would be determined by the union. To get an estimate of this 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.


Collective Bargaining

No. Bargaining does not occur until after the union has won the representation election.

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.

The National Labor Relations Board requires employers and unions to bargain with respect to “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.” See the current collective bargaining agreement (contract) between New York University and the United Auto Workers for an example.

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.

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.

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.


Possible Impacts of Unionization

Not necessarily. There are two reasons why comparisons to state universities are difficult. First, many states have written into their labor laws provisions that prevent unions from involvement in academic matters at public universities. Second, state labor laws typically prohibit strikes.

Unionization at a private university like Columbia would not be subject to such rules. NYU, the only private university with a union contract that includes TAs, may be a useful model of what could happen at Columbia. At NYU, the union called a months-long strike in November 2005 and threatened to strike again in March. The United Auto Workers also filed a number of grievances at NYU related to academic activities.

Further, a union may well be more appropriate in some university settings than others. For example, in large public universities with very large undergraduate student bodies, graduate students are asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of undergraduate instruction. Some public universities have more than 30,000 or 40,000 undergraduates. In recent years, with state governments cutting back allocations to state universities, the situation has gotten even worse.  In those situations, graduate students do not have the leverage to protect their interests, and teach more than they should to develop professionally. In private elite universities such as Columbia, the size of the undergraduate population is relatively small, and doctoral students do not add years on to their studies to meet teaching requirements. In fact, Columbia's programs compete for the top graduate students,  and if student funding offers are not competitive, students may enroll in other universities. 

We do not know. 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.

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.

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

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.

Each school would have to bear individually the fixed costs associated with a union contract, and schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs.

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.



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.

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. 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.