What You Should Know

The university is dedicated to supporting the uninterrupted education and timely graduation of every Columbia student, so we stand ready to help ensure that the learning, research and degree completion of our students will not be unduly disrupted by a strike. But members of our community should understand that if teaching and research assistants are unionized, there is always the potential for strikes that would disrupt the academic work of students and faculty across the university.

We answer below many of the questions you may have about a strike. If there are others not addressed here, please contact the dean’s office in your school.



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 employees. When these students walk into the classroom or the lab, they do so to learn how to teach and do research for their future careers. Without this preparatory experience they would not be able to secure academic jobs in the future.

The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on the issue of whether teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to unionize, depending on which political party controlled the Board.

We seek review by the federal courts to decide this still-unsettled question without regard to shifting political winds. Instead of striking, the GWC-UAW could instead take the action with the NLRB that is needed to bring this issue to the courts.

Whether a student participates in a strike is a decision that each individual must make for herself or himself.

Under the labor laws, employers are not required to pay wages or other benefits to striking workers. Almost all employers choose not to pay. Should the union elect to strike or engage in other disruptive activity in the future, the University would review this decision with a view to stopping payment of wages, stipends and other compensation until work is resumed. 

Separately, regardless of whether students are paid by the University during a strike, federal effort reporting requires that the University remove an estimate of student time on grants for any period when the student was on strike. 

No, the National Labor Relations Act does not permit retaliation against those who engage in protected activity, such as a lawful strike.

Yes. We are taking all necessary steps to minimize the disruption of instruction, to ensure your course objectives are met, and to ensure timely grading. If there are interruptions, the department offering the affected course will implement make-up arrangements to ensure that the instructional objectives of your classes are met and that you are kept informed.

It is possible that your instructor may choose to change the class meeting location to minimize interruption or to avoid crossing a picket line. If that happens, your instructor is responsible for notifying you of the change in a timely manner.

All academic buildings and libraries will be open as normal to allow students and faculty to conduct their classes, conduct research in laboratories and host academic events. Operations, including Lerner Hall, Housing, Dining, Health, and Transportation, will operate on their normal schedule.

Your instructor will let you know if there’s a change in location or method. Some classes may be held using the conference platform Zoom. If you aren’t contacted about a change, activity will continue as planned.

If this happens, or if you have any other questions about class access or scheduling, contact the department or dean’s office that offers the class.

Yes; faculty and staff are expected to perform their duties as usual. Students and parents who have paid tuition to receive a quality education have reason to expect that the objectives of courses will be fulfilled.

Responses to missed classes will be handled at the departmental and/or school level. While it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen and describe all possible responses, the campus has made a concerted effort to plan for a variety of contingencies.

Undergraduate students with questions about academics should contact their advising deans. Graduate students should contact their school with questions.

The university is committed to completing the spring term and keeping to the schedule for financial aid payments.

There are plans in place to ensure that grades will be entered for all students and for all classes. If you have a question about a specific scholarship, you should contact your financial aid counselor.

The International Students and Scholars Office is available for consultation by students regarding their student visa status. Contact Dr. David B. Austell, Associate Provost and Director, at david.austell@columbia.edu.


What is a Union?

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."


Union Representation

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

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, 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.



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.