Columbia University Refuses To Recognize Graduate Student Union

The Ivy League school is digging in for a long legal battle -- and relying on Donald Trump to help them out.
Columbia's provost issued a letter to the school community on Tuesday saying the university would dispute the legitimacy of its graduate student union in court.
Columbia's provost issued a letter to the school community on Tuesday saying the university would dispute the legitimacy of its graduate student union in court.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Columbia University’s graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize in late 2016, in an election certified by the federal government. But as far as the Ivy League school’s administration is concerned, the whole union thing was just a grad student fantasy ― one that President Donald Trump may help dissipate.

In a letter Tuesday, Provost John H. Coatsworth told the school community that Columbia does not recognize the union’s legitimacy and intends to fight it in court. The school has dragged its feet on bargaining with the union, and Coatsworth’s letter makes clear Columbia will take the fight as far as it can, regardless of any damage the university’s reputation may suffer.

Coatsworth acknowledged the decision to challenge the union wouldn’t be a popular one among students and alumni.

“We recognize the potential, indeed the likelihood, for disappointment and dispute in our community,” he wrote. “Needless to say, we have not come to this decision lightly. 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.”

Coatsworth said the school will ask a federal appellate court to review the dispute. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board ― which paved the way for the union ― could come to the school’s rescue under Trump. Indeed, Columbia and other supposedly liberal schools fighting grad student campaigns ― the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and Cornell University among them ― find themselves in the awkward position of hoping the Trump administration will deliver for them.

The NLRB ― in one of its biggest decisions in years ― decided in August 2016 that Columbia graduate students were, in fact, employees of the school, and therefore eligible to unionize. The board determined that it didn’t matter whether the graduate students were there to be educated, as Columbia stressed ― they were paid to do work, which made them employees.

That decision set up the grad-student vote to join the United Auto Workers. And it opened the door for grad students who teach at other private schools to exert their collective bargaining rights.

But the union movement was dealt a major setback with Trump’s election. The president gets to fill open slots on the five-member NLRB, which referees disputes between employers and unions in the private sector. It was a liberal majority that decided the Columbia case in favor of the graduate students. A conservative majority is more likely to side with the schools and determine that grad students are ineligible to unionize.

The board is currently split 2-2 along partisan lines due to the expiration of one member’s term. Once Trump names a fifth member and the Senate approves his pick, a full board may well revive the grad student question and rule instead against the right to unionize. It isn’t uncommon for the board to reverse precedent in a matter of years. In fact, the 2016 Columbia decision had overturned a 2004 ruling against grad students.

As D. Taylor, the president of the Unite Here union that represents an array of workers in the hospitality and other industries, told HuffPost in October, the schools “are absolutely counting on Donald Trump.”

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