Letter from the Provost

GWC-UAW’s possible strike by student teaching and research assistants

April 18, 2018

Dear fellow members of the Columbia Community:

As you may know, the Graduate Workers of Columbia, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers (GWC-UAW), have announced their intent to strike next week if the University declines to begin negotiating a union contract governing student teaching and research assistants across our schools and departments. We write to share, once again, the University’s approach and to express both our respect for the rights of these students and our hope they will not choose to use them in this way.

Our Support for Unionized Employees
Columbia has long supported unions on campus and collectively bargains contracts with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of unionized employees. We also have been consistent in the view that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia to earn degrees are not University employees. The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on the status of teaching and research assistants over the past 15 years depending the political make-up of the board. That is why we think it essential to seek a judicial review of this central and still-unsettled question. Were the courts to ultimately determine that students are employees under federal law, the University would bargain collectively with a union. Still, we believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the University as employees rather than students. Here’s why:

Our Support for Graduate Students
We recognize that while graduate students are in the classroom or lab to prepare themselves as future scholars, they are also central to the excellence of teaching, research and scholarship at Columbia. We are committed to continuing to attract the very best students in the world because of their potential as students and future scholars. This is why we have worked continually for the past decade with students and faculty to increase stipends, enhance benefits and improve quality of life during what we know are intellectually and professionally challenging years of graduate study and research.

Indeed, while there is some variation school-by-school, the average PhD student receives tuition and other benefits from Columbia totaling some $82,000 a year or more. But this commitment is not just financial. From vocally advocating for federal policies protecting students’ immigration and tax status to creating new policies, resources and structures to address a range of graduate student work-life concerns, the University has worked consistently to support and represent the needs and interests of our diverse, accomplished graduate students.

Risk to School, Department and Individual Autonomy
Unionization advocates have argued that students across our many schools and departments would be best served by a one-size-fits all contract of union-negotiated rules for appointments, work hours and other details governing teaching and research. In such a system, each school’s dean and other academic leaders would not be permitted to work with individual students or student governance groups to accommodate the distinctive needs of individual students and academic disciplines. All students in the bargaining unit would be bound by the same contract, as well as by the obligation to pay a percentage of their annual stipends to the GWC-UAW. As a result, Columbia students could be required to pay a collective total of some $2 million per year in dues (or the equivalent amount in “agency fees”)—whether or not they agree with the union’s positions.

This is the central problem with the union’s arguments about democracy. It is certainly the case that the GWC-UAW has won wide margins among those who chose to vote for unionization last year and for the recent strike authorization. But it is also essential to note that neither vote represented a majority of some 4,000 eligible student voters, nor could they reflect the views of thousands of other students who would be affected by a strike, or every future class of student teaching and research assistants who will be automatically represented by the union based on the one-time vote of a minority of current students.

Value of a Final, Non-partisan Judicial Resolution
Union advocates at many peer institutions across the nation have now backed away from their own current unionization efforts in order to avoid any challenge to the NLRB’s most recent reversal on the status of students as employees. We believe that it would be far better to have this essential question finally resolved by the courts rather than by constant changes in the NLRB membership with each new administration. For the present, we hope supporters of GWC-UAW will consider the potential impact of actions they describe as "disruptive to the University" and instead take the more constructive steps necessary to ensure that the federal courts have a chance to determine with finality if student teaching and research assistants are employees under federal labor law.

If some student teaching and research assistants do choose to strike, the University is dedicated to supporting the uninterrupted education and timely graduation of every Columbia student. If the need arises, we will communicate contingency plans that fully respect both the right of strikers to express their views and the right of all students and faculty to continue teaching and learning. For more information about the potential strike, click here.

Columbia is a world-class university and our responsibility is to protect and enhance what makes it so—even when it means standing up for what we believe is essential to do that, including when others in our community hold sharply different views. That is what makes Columbia a uniquely vibrant academic community and we will continue to work with all of our students and faculty members to continue our progress together.


John H. Coatsworth
Professor of International and Public Affairs and of History