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Columbia graduate students attack the university's refusal to negotiate a contract

Teaching and research assistants at Columbia University are surprising to protest the school's refusal to negotiate a contract contract. (Courtesy of Columbia-United Automobile Workers graduates.)

Hundreds of teachers and research assistants at Columbia University were on strike on Tuesday ] after more than a year of begging the Ivy League school to negotiate a contract.

Graduate students began protesting on campus on Tuesday morning to protest what they say are unpredictable workloads, late payments, unstable health benefits and inadequate protections against harassment and sexual assault. The strike, which lasts one week, arrives when teachers finish classes. Many professors rely on graduate students to teach, grade jobs, and conduct research.

"Columbia gives us W2, they treat us like workers, they need us as workers," said Rosalie Ray, a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning and a member of the Graduate Workers of the Columbia-United Automobile Workers. "I spend my time … really teaching"

The teaching and research assistants at Columbia voted overwhelmingly in December 2016 to join the UAW but the university filed objections before the National Labor Relations Board . That panel sided with the graduating students last year, but the university announced in January that it would not negotiate with the union. Instead, the university said it would present its case to a federal appeals court.

"We have long supported the unions and bargained collectively with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of college employees, but we believe that the teaching students and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not employees under the law. "said Caroline Adelman, a spokeswoman for Columbia.

University leaders have said that federal courts are best suited to resolve the employment situation of graduate students because the National Labor Relations Board has reversed its position several times during the past 15 years.

Columbia's provost John H. Coatsworth, in a letter sent to the school community last week, said the university would negotiate with the union if the courts determine that the students are employed under federal law.

Still, he said that recognizing graduate students as employees would be detrimental to the academic mission of the university and the nature of graduate education. Coatsworth said collective bargaining would undermine the autonomy of individual students and university departments because they would be subject to a "one size fits all" contract.

The provost sent the letter after the graduate student union voted in favor of a strike earlier this month. The union wrote to Columbia President Lee Bollinger last week to demand that the university declare its intention to start negotiations on Tuesday or face a strike. Columbia informed students last week that the classes would not be affected by a strike and encouraged them to plan to attend as usual.

"We do not understand why GWC-UAW prefers pressure tactics and the interruption of a strike to a definitive and non-partisan resolution of that legal issue in federal courts," Adelman said.

Union organizer Ray said graduate students have no interest in further delays after nearly two years of waiting for Columbia to come to the negotiating table. The group, he said, has considered filing a lawsuit for unfair labor practices, but that would only prolong the process.

"We want a union now," said Ray. "If we file an unfair labor practice and submit it to the federal courts, it's just another way for the university to delay negotiating with us, the law has been resolved, and Columbia is simply choosing not to follow it."

Having a bargaining unit to advocate for student workers could make a big difference in cutting the bureaucracy at Columbia, Ray said. Remember an incident last semester in which the university took two months to pay the assistant teachers in their department. Ray, who has two jobs, said he could make ends meet, but some of his colleagues did not.

Adelman said "in the rare and limited instances where a disbursement is delayed, the cause is usually missing or incomplete documentation submitted by student assistants"

Ray receives an annual stipend of $ 28,500 for his work As a teaching assistant, not enough in one of the most expensive cities in the country, he said. The university covers its tuition and provides health care benefits, but Ray said the coverage is limited and taxed.

In his letter last week, Coatsworth said the university has "continuously worked over the past decade to increase stipends, improve benefits and improve the quality of life" of graduate students. He said that the average Ph.D. student receives enrollment and other Columbia benefits for a total of about $ 82,000 per year, although there is a variation from one school to another.

The teaching and research assistants at Columbia have been strong in their struggle for labor rights. His campaign to join the UAW in 2014 revived discussions about the rights of graduated workers at the National Labor Relations Board. At that time, Columbia joined Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the rest of the Ivy League in their struggle to unionize.

In a legal report, schools argued that engaging students in the negotiation process would interrupt operations because negotiations could include central issues such as class length, number of grades, or curriculum decisions. Even so, the labor board reverses an earlier ruling that prohibits graduate students from participating in collective bargaining.

That 2016 decision marked the beginning of a wave of union activity in universities across the country. Teaching and research assistants from 16 private universities have submitted petitions or participated in elections to form unions, according to the National Hunter Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and Professions. Last week, Harvard graduate students voted to join the UAW.

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