Less than a month after Columbia University graduate students voted to unionize—the first private university graduate student group to do so since the National Labor Relations Board enshrined the right in August—Columbia is challenging the vote, urging the NLRB to schedule a new election.
Formal objections, made public Monday, accuse organizers with GWC-UAW—the Columbia graduate student chapter of the United Automobile Workers—and NLRB agents of participating in various forms of voter suppression. Columbia says union staff stood within 100 feet of a campus polling place on election day, and set up a video camera in an alleged form of surveillance that could have instilled a "reasonable fear of voting against the union." The school also criticized NLRB agents for running out of challenge ballots—which voters fill out if they believe their names have been erroneously omitted from a voter list—and for changing its voter ID policy in the days leading up to the December vote.
The final vote was 1,602 to 623 in favor of the union, according to UAW. The union now represents about 3,500 students.
While both Columbia and GWC-UAW have described the challenge as standard procedure, union members say this is the university's latest attempt to undermine their organizing efforts.
"Employers often file objections as a delay tactic and this appears to be just another baseless effort by the University to ignore the democratic process, especially given the overwhelming margin in favor of the union," GWC-UAW stated. During a protest Monday, graduate students also accused the school of attempting to stall until President-elect Donald Trump has had a chance to appoint a less labor-friendly NLRB.
They say the concern has historical justification. Back in 2000, a Bill Clinton-appointed NLRB ruled that graduate students at NYU had the right to organize. But in 2004, an NLRB appointed by then-President George W. Bush overturned the ruling.
Danielle Carr, 26, a second-year PhD candidate in Anthropology, said Columbia took a hard anti-union stance as the vote neared. The school launched a "Be Informed" website, with a bank of editorials and press coverage opposing unionization. And when the 'yes' vote came down, the school did not approach the union to begin the bargaining process. "If I were a president of a university and saw that the people I claim to support voted 'yes' despite a disgusting campaign of misinformation, I would come forward to bargain," Carr said. "After Trump's election we got this flurry of emails about how this isn't what the University stands for, and yet they are so quick to contest, contest, contest."
The Columbia administration has argued that a union will complicate the unique relationships forged between graduate students and their departments. "I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories," said Provost John Coatsworth in an email to students ahead of the vote.
But graduate students and their allies have said these departmental relationships reinforce the need for bargaining power. "Students weren't being paid on time or weren't being paid for the number of hours they worked," said a university staff member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. "If you are a PhD student, you are working for a department, but that department is also grading you and giving you your degree. They control your whole academic future, so it really puts people in a tough position."
"Our objections were filed with the NLRB as part of its established procedure for determining whether the conduct of the election was appropriate," said Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby in a statement. "We share the NLRB's goal of ensuring a fair electoral process and protecting the rights of all students."
In the meantime, Carr said, the union is moving ahead with a student survey to determine bargaining priorities. Aside from fair and timely pay, students have concerns about Columbia's handling of sexual assault cases, and its ability to accommodate students with disabilities.
"[Columbia] continuously refuses to engage with a fact that the next generation of academia wants to have a union," she said.
The NLRB declined comment.