While labor faces a shaky ground under the Trump administration, a landmark union win has widened the horizons for worker organizing on college campuses nationwide. The graduate student workers at Columbia have voted to unionize. The 1,602-623-margin victory means that the 3,500-strong union became the first private-university graduate-student union established through a formal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, following a breakthrough ruling by the board recognizing their employee rights. As the official Graduate Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers Union, teaching and research assistants can push forward a nationwide wave of unionization efforts at both public and private higher-education institutions.
The vote was keenly watched by other student-worker groups seeking to form their own unions at private campuses in coming months, and the effort coincides with a rising movement for more equitable, less corporate-minded higher education. The vote was also hailed by elected officials and labor activists who hope the win reflects the kind of unorthodox labor movement that the Age of Trumpism demands.
For years Columbia’s student workers campaigned alongside other campus and staff unions, progressive faculty and student groups, and community organizations, to make the case that despite their scholarly position, they still struggle like other workers for fair pay and respect on the job. And they persuaded the nation’s highest labor-relations body, the NLRB, to recognize them as workers, too, leading to a major ruling in August that affirmed the employee rights of graduate (and some undergraduate) workers and in turn, the private university’s responsibility as an employer.
In a post-election announcement, Julie Kushner, regional director of United Auto Workers, which has supported graduate student organizing drives on many other campuses, said the vote “paved the way for thousands of other research assistants and teaching assistants to have a recognized voice in America’s higher education.” Student worker union drives and election plans are currently underway at several private institutions, including Cornell, Harvard, The New School and University of Chicago. The NLRB’s August decision overturned a 2004 ruling that effectively denied graduate students’ right to collectively bargain. (The other official graduate workers union on a private university campus is New York University, which the administration voluntary recognized).
Yet even prior to the formal election, the union was already representing graduate workers’ interests. As a campus activist group, they recently successfully advocated for four-year wage increases for teaching and research assistants and pushed for labor equity for international student workers. Additionally, the union helped secure a major expansion of childcare support for many parents in graduate programs, including 12 weeks of parental leave and a doubling of the annual childcare subsidy to $2000. On a campus where nearly one in five graduate students had reported having put off having children mostly because of the cost of their scholarly lifestyle, Such incremental wins help offset a wide gap between threadbare student wages and the city’s exorbitant cost of living.