Columbia University announced on Tuesday that it would not bargain with its graduate students who voted to unionize more than a year ago. The case will now wind its way to a federal appeals court.
In addition to studying, graduate students do much of the teaching of undergraduates at many universities, and the question of whether they can unionize has seesawed back and forth for years. The National Labor Relations Board established the right during the Clinton administration in a case that involved graduate students from New York University. A few years later, that decision was reversed during George W. Bush’s presidency with a case out of Brown University. During the Obama years, in 2016, the N.L.R.B. ruled again, this time in favor of graduate students at Columbia.
A few months after that ruling, the Columbia students voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing, 1,602 to 623. The university appealed to the labor board, which found in December that the election had been fair and that the union should be certified. Julie Kushner, the director of region 9A at the U.A.W., which hopes to add Columbia graduate students to its ranks, said that while the majority of the N.L.R.B. members at the time were Republicans who might have been sympathetic to Columbia’s cause, the case before the board in December was a narrow one that focused on the fairness of the election.
John H. Coatsworth, provost of Columbia, sent an email to the Columbia community on Tuesday announcing the decision.
“We recognize the potential, indeed the likelihood, for disappointment and dispute in our community,” he said. “Because of the principles at stake — principles essential to the university’s mission of training scholars — we have declined to bargain until the legal process has been allowed to run its course. We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”
“The provost’s insistence that Columbia is relying on a ‘legal process’ to avoid bargaining occludes the very real fact that Columbia has explicitly announced its refusal to follow the law — simply because it doesn’t like that law,” said Katharine Jackson, a member of the bargaining committee and a sixth year Ph.D. candidate in political science.
Now that the school has declined to bargain, the case is expected to come before a federal appeals court, after a series of legal maneuvers. If the court rules in Columbia’s favor, the decision could have repercussions for graduate students at other private universities. The U.A.W. represents graduate students at the New School and N.Y.U., both private schools that voluntarily recognized their unions, as well as Boston College and several public universities. (States can choose whether to allow public university graduate students to unionize.)
“This is going to establish a trend, a pattern and a precedent,” said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s a fight for more than just the graduate students at Columbia. It’s a fight for graduate students everywhere.”