April 17, 2004

Pushing for Union, Columbia Grad Students Are Set to Strike

By KAREN W. ARENSON

Graduate teaching assistants at Columbia University said yesterday that they would go on strike Monday morning and remain out until Columbia recognized their right to unionize, which could shut down hundreds of classes through the end of the school year.

"This is an indefinite strike; we're not going to do anything until they recognize our union," said Dermot Ryan, a fifth-year graduate student in English and comparative literature who teaches "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization," one of Columbia's core courses. "We will stay out as long as it takes."

Graduate students represent a significant portion of the teaching force at Columbia. Not only do they run small discussion sessions of large lecture courses, but they also teach more than half of the core courses that all Columbia students must take, like "Contemporary Civilization," "Literature and Humanities" and writing.

On Friday afternoon, Columbia officials seemed resigned to the strike, and were discussing how they would provide grades in classes missing teachers.

"Our view is that we have nothing to negotiate about," said Alan Brinkley, Columbia's provost. "The university's position is that we believe that graduate students should not be and are not eligible to be members of a union under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act."

Columbia is not the only university facing a possible strike next week. The adjunct faculty at New York University have also voted to strike beginning on Wednesday, but they are also taking part in mediation sessions.

In a memo sent to the N.Y.U. community on Friday, university administrators expressed hope that a contract might be reached and a strike avoided.

"We are doing everything possible to avoid a strike, as we are mindful of the possible disruption that it would cause to our students' education," the memo said. "Not only would a strike be a regrettable course of action for the U.A.W. to follow, it is an entirely unnecessary one.''

Columbia officials said they did not know how many graduate students would stay away from classes - or how long they would remain out. But they said that students would receive grades and seniors would be able to graduate.

"That will take accommodations," Dr. Brinkley said. "We will work that out over the next week or so." He said the striking graduate student teachers must turn over any grades they have already given, as well as any ungraded material.

Dr. Brinkley said he did not expect any faculty member to go on strike, but that some might hold classes off campus.

Columbia graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants tried to unionize two years ago, but the process was never completed. Although a vote was held, the votes were never counted because Columbia appealed their right to unionize to the National Labor Relations Board.

The board, however, has not acted on the case. From December 2002 through January 2004, the five-member board had one vacant seat and postponed many cases.

David Parker, the board's deputy executive secretary, said that the Columbia case was under "active consideration. I can't give you a date when it will be decided. But we're talking sooner rather than later. We're talking months, not years."

He said the board would consider cases involving Brown, Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania and units of the State University of New York.

Maida Rosenstein, president of local 2110 of the United Automobile Workers, which represents Columbia's clerical workers and has been working with the university's graduate students, said that more than half of the graduate students eligible to be represented by a union had expressed interest this year, and that 80 percent of the people who voted had authorized a strike. Organizers declined to say how many voted.

She said that the Labor Relations Board had clearly recognized the right of graduate assistants at private universities to be represented by a union in a case involving N.Y.U. in 2000.

The Columbia Spectator's editorial board yesterday called the strike "thoroughly justified."

Some faculty members, like Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and comparative literature, said they supported the strike. He said that at Rutgers, where he previously taught, there had been "none of the bad consequences that some have predicted from unionization."


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