The Hand that Feeds You

Columbia graduate workers give a lesson in labor

by Will Weatherly

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published March 2, 2018

content warning: sexual harassment 


On February 1, a group of graduate workers and faculty at Columbia University gathered in front of the Low Memorial Library for the “Rally to Tell Columbia to Stop Breaking the Law.” Many of those gathered were members of Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC), a union of teaching assistants and researchers from departments across the University’s two New York City campuses. Two days earlier, on January 30, university provost John Coatsworth announced in a campus-wide email that Columbia administrators, “convinced” that “the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment,” would refuse to bargain with the GWC. Their declaration came as an illegal refutation of a 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that established the bargaining power of graduate workers at private universities. Coatsworth, stating in his letter that Columbia’s refusal would last “until the legal process has been allowed to run its course,” performed the deft feat of expecting a trip to court without acknowledging the violation that will put him there.

More broadly, Coatsworth’s letter seems to demonstrate the University’s refusal to hold two ideas in its head at once: that its graduate workers can be both students and employees of the University simultaneously. The assertion of this possibility has been central to graduate workers’ movements at private institutions across the country, including the GWC. At the rally, as graduate workers huddled under a statue of Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of knowledge and learning, they raised circular signs bearing the logo of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the GWC’s union affiliate which represents more than 60,000 workers in higher education nationally. Negating the legacy of over three decades of the UAW providing higher education workers with legal and advisory services for negotiations, Bollinger’s letter represented the UAW as “an outside party involved in what are ultimately academic and intellectual judgments by faculty members.”

Despite this account, the GWC’s grievances are fully their own, and almost none of their concerns can be characterized as ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual.’ Chief among them is their right to earn a living wage: in 2016 the average annual salary for a teaching assistant at Columbia was $22,686, according to the salary aggregating service Glassdoor, which is below the median teaching assistant salary of $26,796 and below the national average for part-time work at $24,500. They lack comprehensive vision or dental insurance, and guaranteed research funding varies widely between departments. Researchers and TAs also face late or irregular paychecks, jeopardizing their housing and their financial security. A union contract could provide an opportunity to bargain for higher wages and more standardized benefit structures—an agreement along the lines of countless others forged between the UAW and employers across multiple industries. While many of these stipulations would increase immediate costs to the university, the exact sum remains indeterminate without a final negotiated agreement. 

The GWC’s grievances are representative of a growing trend of universities loading ‘casual’ labor onto its graduate workforce. With the decline of tenured or tenure-track jobs in academia, from 57 percent in 1957 to 30 percent in 2011 according to the New Yorker, graduate workers are taking on a steadily rising amount of universities’ undergraduate instruction and research, often with low pay or uncertain funding. Columbia’s denial of laborers in word, the GWC argues, has allowed the University to abuse their labor in deed—a combined operation which points to the extent that private education in the US increasingly engages in a brand of financial exploitation which maintains a rhetorical investment in the idea of a prestigious education’s enduring “academic and intellectual” value.  




The debate over graduate students’ right to define the nature of their labor, which has been waged for almost 70 years within American private universities, has been all but settled among their public counterparts. Organizing rights for graduate workers at public institutions have long been guaranteed, because these institutions fall under the jurisdiction of public sector labor law, which has established protections and limits on collective bargaining rights. Such continuity in the public sphere makes the NLRB’s contentious legacy all the more startling: for workers at private universities, the Board has ruled against collective bargaining in four cases since 1972, and overturned these rulings twice. Far from deciding on any cohesive stance on bargaining’s impact on the status of students’ education, these decisions have largely been determined by the party allegiances of the Board’s presidential appointees. Appointees under President Clinton ruled for graduate worker organizing at NYU in 2000, while in a case brought by Brown University to a Republican-majority NLRB under President Bush, the Board found that students could not be considered employees.

In 2014, Columbia graduate workers filed a petition for official recognition of the GWC, after requesting and being denied voluntary recognition from university administrators. Two years later, then under President Obama, NLRB overturned the Brown University decision, opening future possibilities for union organizing and bargaining at private universities. When Columbia graduate workers voted to join the UAW with a 72 percent majority in December 2016, the GWC became only the second union of private university graduate workers in the country, behind NYU. 

In his lone dissent to the Board’s 2016 decision, Board member Philip Miscimarra echoed University administrators’ opposition to unionizing on academic grounds, arguing that “the Board resembles the ‘foolish repairman with one tool—a hammer—to whom every problem looks like a nail; we have one tool—collective bargaining—and thus every petitioning individual looks like someone’s ‘employee,’” again characterizing graduate workers as the exception to a narrow conception of labor, predicated on the industrial legacy of unionizing. 

Central to these arguments is the defense of the ‘mentor-mentee relationship’ between graduate students and the faculty who instruct them. Columbia administrators have proposed that debates over working conditions would deprive instructors of their authority over students in matters of academic policy. In an amicus brief filed to the NLRB by all eight Ivy League schools, university administrators argued that “the services performed by graduate student assistants are embedded in the very fabric of their educational experience, it is impossible to isolate one from the other,” and that bargaining has “the potential to transform the collaborative model of graduate education to one of conflict and tension.”

Olga Brudastova, an international PhD student in Civil Engineering at Columbia and a member of the GWC’s bargaining committee, attested in an interview with the Independent last Friday that the union has had to “prove again and again” that this fear of conflict between instructors and graduate workers is not grounded in empirical fact. A 2013 Cornell University study found that union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate workers receive higher wages, and both unionized and nonunionized graduate workers report “similar perceptions” of academic freedom. Brudastova explained that these benefits can serve as an advantage for whole institutions. “A lot of universities get a lot more funding [with unions in place], or their graduate workers perform better because they are not frustrated with their pay, their benefits, or their livelihood,” she said. “They can dedicate more time to working on their research and teaching.” 

The power of unionization, she argued, comes not from dismantling the relationship between instructors and graduate workers, but from providing further protections when that relationship is abused, a possibility which is conspicuously absent from universities’ wholesale defense of the authority of their instructors. For teaching assistants and researchers at Columbia, there are currently two options available to students who feel targeted, harassed, or otherwise unfairly or inappropriately treated by their faculty supervisors. The first is filing a complaint within the University, which, in Brudastova’s view, can often be subject to departmental and administrative bias. The second is seeking legal action through state or federal channels, which often lacks transparency, as well as being time-consuming and costly. A more accessible option, known as mutual arbitration, offers a third method, in which an arbitrator mutually selected by the union and the University decides whether the University provided appropriate protections, whether an employee was compensated fairly, or whether a participant in the case violated the law. 

The possibility for a more efficient and neutral legal recourse is especially urgent for graduate workers targeted by sexual harassment; according to a 2015 survey by the Association for American Universities, 22 percent of female graduate students reported being sexually harassed by a faculty member, with 18 percent reporting harassment from a co-worker or supervisor. Students with disabilities and queer, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary students reported higher rates of harassment across the board. Privileging the sanctity of the relationship between instructors and graduate workers—employer and employee—discourages victims of sexual harassment from coming forward in a situations in which tenured faculty are pitted against researchers and TAs, whose employment is anything but secure. 

This uncertainty is integral to graduate workers’ status as ‘casual labor,’ which administrators have the ability to terminate on a whim, often without transparency or an opportunity for due process. Many union contracts contain fair grievance procedures in which employers have to declare a justification for an employee’s dismissal for possible appeal; currently, no formal process informs the termination of TAs at Columbia. In June 2015, the GWC delivered a petition against the wrongful termination of Longxi Zhao, a PhD student and teaching assistant in chemical engineering at Columbia. An investigation by university administrators cited four allegations against Zhao, including that he had used the word “fucked” in an email to students (the email reads, "I have to manually input all your scores because I am really fucked up with this coursework system”), for which he was summoned to a disciplinary with a dean for allegedly “harassing others,” according to the Columbia Spectator. 

An additional allegation against Zhao was an “unapproved” trip home to China, for which Zhao attests he had verbal permission at the time of his departure. In the description of the incident on their website, the GWC claims that Zhao’s supervisor had expressed discontent with Zhao’s trip home earlier in the semester, “because in his words, ‘I don’t trust China.’” When challenged, he became angry and told Longxi to ‘remember who feeds you,’ shutting down the conversation.” Reflecting on the incident, Brudastova said that “[Zhao’s] case was just so clear: he was treated as a worker before being treated as a student.” Because the GWC lacked official union status at the time of the incident, Columbia administrators ignored their petition, and without a job or a research adviser, Zhao was forced to leave the University and return to China. 




Against the University’s emphasis on collective bargaining’s supposed threat to the foundations of its academic process, organizers at Columbia point to policies that have little to do with pedagogy, and much more with profitability, as the driving factor for Columbia’s anti-union campaign. “From all [faculty and researchers’] grants,” Brudastova told the Indy, “the University takes a lot of indirect costs and fees, and we cannot negotiate over it. This is despicable, because [faculty] brings in the money, and yet they are charged for contributing to the University, for having a chance to work for the University.” She argued that these fees are often channeled towards the construction of new facilities and administrators’ salaries, which have little tangible effect on the education or well-being of Columbia students. 

Among the costs incurred by the University, Columbia has added the price of fighting the GWC itself. For several years, the University has hired Proskauer Rose for legal representation in cases against the union, a law firm that has represented Pfizer, IBM, and Walmart, and that has been named the “800-pound gorilla” of labor relations by US Legal 500. An op-ed in the Spectator estimated the firm’s fees to range between “several million to tens of millions of dollars.” The firm’s influence was publically visible in a 2016 memo to Columbia faculty: administrators’ advice that faculty could not assert that unionization “will” have negative consequences, but that they could share the opinion that it “could” or “might,” matches instructions given in an internal memo to Walmart supervisors leaked in 2014. 

Following Columbia administrators’ refusal to recognize the GWC’s vote to unionize, it appears Proskauer Rose has guided the University to break the law over giving graduate workers a seat at the negotiating table. “Corporations [break the law willfully] all the time,” Brudastova said, “but we were all hoping that they would not be a part of corporate America in that sense.” She speculated that the University is expecting to gain favor in the ensuing legal case under the NRLB’s new Republican majority, following Donald Trump’s appointment of William Emanuel and Chairman Marvin Kaplan. Despite University President Lee Bollinger’s claim, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, that Trump “challenge[s] the central idea of a university,” Columbia administrators stand to directly benefit from this presidency’s pro-business ideology. 

Despite potential opposition in the NLRB, Brudastova reported that the GWC is prepared to file a legal case. Before doing so, it is providing another opportunity for Columbia to drop their opposition against the vote to unionize. Barring this, the union is planning another vote, this time to allow its bargaining committee to authorize a strike of researchers and TAs. Such a work stoppage would put further pressure on the University’s leadership—and demonstrate the crucial role of their labor in providing research and instruction by enacting the consequences of that labor suddenly coming to a halt. 

Embedded in these consequences is the essentially circular nature of contemporary higher education. With national tuition costs rising at around six percent annually according to Buzzfeed News, a degree from a private institution is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity, and with a greater share of instruction and research loaded onto graduate workers every year, these employees are increasingly tasked with providing this value. This is the value enshrined in the ‘mentor-mentee relationship,’ and the value that ensures that, for the University, students can never be “reduced to ordinary terms of employment.” But by negating the education these workers provide in the name of that education itself, Columbia administrators are selling graduate workers’ labor back to them, with a higher price tag and almost none of the profit. On strike or in court, the GWC stands to offer the University a refutation in turn: if they are exploited as laborers, they will organize as laborers—a lesson for which graduate workers deserve full compensation, and which Columbia has yet to learn. 


WILL WEATHERLY B’19 is more like a 125-pound, average chimp of labor relations