Columbia Provost Coatsworth Escalates Assault on Grad Student Union Rights


Back in August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in the Columbia University case that student employees at private universities have the right to organize unions to bargain collectively over the terms of their employment.  Within a week Columbia’s provost, historian John Coatsworth, responded with a letter to the campus community, which argued that “the daily activities and the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace” and that “graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants come to this institution first and foremost to acquire through that work the knowledge and expertise that are essential to their becoming future scholars and teachers.”  The letter went on not only to challenge the legitimacy of the NLRB ruling, but to all but urge Columbia student employees to reject collective bargaining in favor of “productive dialogue” with the university administration.  As both a Columbia alum and an officer of the AAUP, I  responded with an open letter, posted to the Academe blog.

Now, with a representation election scheduled for next week, Coatsworth has escalated his assault on the collective bargaining rights of Columbia student workers.  On October 20, GWC-UAW Local 2110, the union seeking to represent Columbia teaching assistants and research assistants, invited Coatsworth to participate in a public debate, to be moderated by members of the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate.  The provost’s initial response six days later indicated that he shared the union’s “desire to engage in an open conversation of the kind that is a hallmark of the Columbia experience.”  Yet, to this date, Coatsworth has declined to actually schedule such an event.

“The Provost has campaigned against unionization for months in closed-door meetings with department chairs and faculty, one-sided town hall presentations, emails to graduate students, and a website,” the union writes.  “But, to our disappointment, he has not yet agreed to debate the issue with a pro-union graduate student. Should he wish to take part in that discussion so that grads might hear a balanced debate on this crucial issue, our invitation still stands”

The hypocrisy of this refusal is astonishing.  Columbia President Lee Bollinger, a respected scholar of the First Amendment, has stated, “Our great institutions of higher education bear a special social responsibility for educating people to possess a nimble cast of mind, able to grasp multiple perspectives and the full complexity of a subject. And for centuries, great societies of all types have understood that this kind of intellectual capacity is essential to progress. But never have critical thinking and tolerance been more important for individual well-being and for our collective prosperity.”  In that spirit Columbia’s 2015 Rules of University Conduct states, “Although the University values the civil and courteous exchange of viewpoints, it does not limit discussion because the ideas expressed might be thought offensive, immoral, disrespectful, or even dangerous. We expect that members of our community will engage in public discussions that may confront convention, and free expression would mean little if it did not include the right to express what others may reject or loathe”

Yet Columbia’s administration doggedly refuses to engage in such a “civil and courteous exchange of viewpoints” over the issue of collective bargaining.  In their view a civil and open debate on this pressing issue would apparently do nothing to encourage “a nimble cast of mind” and the ability “to grasp multiple perspectives.”  On unionization, it seems, they see but one perspective — their own and that of the union-busting law firm, Proskauer-Rose, that they have hired at great expense to defeat the union.  But this is the least of it.  On December 1, Coatsworth sent an email to all students which began, “If teaching and research assistants are represented by the UAW, a new group of union representatives will be inserted into the existing conversation between student assistants and the University’s faculty and administration, and we will all be governed by a regulatory framework.”  Existing conversation?  What conversation?  The one in which Coatsworth refuses to participate?

The email continues, “Other changes to the status quo are less certain and need to be explained by UAW advocates,” and then poses a series of loaded “questions” for union supporters.  Not surprisingly, GWC-UAW has some pretty effective answers to these questions:

  • “Will increases beyond already-announced stipend hikes be larger than the cost of union dues—likely 2% of income—that must be paid by every member of the bargaining unit?”

Tens of thousands of RAs, TAs, postdocs and adjunct faculty have negotiated successful contracts with improvements — both economic and non-economic — that majorities voted to ratify because they felt the improvements were “worth” paying dues to maintain effective long term representation.  As examples,  the first NYU contract included a 38% increase to minimum stipends, and the first UConn contract in 2015 included a total compensation increase (stipend increases plus new fee waivers) of nearly 7% per year for the average graduate assistant.  Moreover, graduate workers have used dues resources effectively to engage in effective representation, as you can see in this helpful summary of grievance successes at the University of Washington and in this story about how the graduate assistant UConn is taking on sexual harassment.

  • “How does the UAW propose to overcome existing constraints on University resources? Through reducing financial aid or making other cuts to the budget? By recommending tuition increases?”

Union advocates have never proposed anything but a fair system where we elect representatives who bargain as equals over our pay and benefits, just like RAs and TAs at more than 60 university campuses across the US and like hundreds of employees right here at Columbia, all of whom work within the constraints of existing “University resources.”

  • “Will a one-size-fits-all union contract capture the differences between the goals sought, for example, by a doctoral candidate in the humanities versus one pursuing an Engineering Ph.D.? A seat at the table is important but will one seat, occupied by a UAW representative, be sufficient for all student assistants?”

Columbia is not unusual when it comes to the number or variety of departments that employ RAs and TAs.  The University of Washington, for example, has as much variety — a large medical school, engineering college, humanities, social sciences and professional schools — and the 19-member bargaining committee there has had no trouble at all negotiating great contracts that work for all of those constituencies.  We are confident we can do the same if Columbia bargains in good faith.

  • “What is the likelihood of a strike, perhaps one in solidarity with other colleges or universities, that prevents lab access and disrupts research in progress?”

As union supporters from the medical center pointed out last week, strikes during contract negotiations are quite rare, but graduate workers and postdocs have responsibly and democratically used the possibility of strikes ranging from the University of California system to University of Washington to NYU to negotiate successful contract without striking.  In the rare cases where strikes have occurred, participation is an individual choice and no one has ever reported being unable to get into the lab or make academic progress.

  • “Are union representatives prepared to accommodate points of view among its student membership that differ from those of the union’s leadership, such as on the matter of H-1B visas?”

We have already worked effectively with the top UAW leadership on policy issues that matter to us, like last year when the GWC-UAW international student working group and the national UAW leadership advocated for the Optional Practical Training STEM extension, a critical program that enables international students to work in the US after graduation.

With 60,000 academic workers across the US, the UAW has become a committed ally on issues that directly affect graduate students and other academic workers, such as expanding opportunities for international students to work in the US after graduation and maintaining federal investment in science research funding.

For example, not only does the UAW does not oppose H1B and other similar existing short-term opportunities (like OPT), it has also become a strong advocate for “no limits on employment-based green cards” for international graduates of US universities. This would provide greater flexibility and more long-term workplace protections for international workers.

  • “Will the uninhibited debate on our campus be diminished by union-led negotiations that, in other settings, have elevated the most strident voices?”

Academic studies have already answered this question: unionization does not impact academic freedom. Indeed, scholars have found that “union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay.”  The NLRB also answered this question clearly in August.

Indeed, the union is absolutely correct that the NLRB answered this last question clearly and unequivocally, basing its response in part on the AAUP’s amicus brief in support of the Columbia students, which explicitly pointed out that unions, through collective bargaining agreements, often promote the cause of academic freedom:

Local AAUP chapters have successfully established explicit guarantees of academic freedom in their collective bargaining contracts. Some chapters of unionized faculty refer to the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and quote it extensively in their collective bargaining contracts. Other faculty collective bargaining agreements to which an AAUP chapter is a party incorporate the language of the 1940 Statement to define academic freedom. These contracts make promises of academic freedom legally enforceable.

On the same day his email was distributed Coatsworth, joined by associate provost David B. Austell, director of Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office, published an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator, which asked “What happens when the union’s views are not yours?”

“The eventual surfacing of a conflict between the views of unionized Columbia students and union leaders at UAW or AFL-CIO national headquarters is not only possible, but likely unavoidable,” the essay declared. In an unsubtle if not outright brazen attempt to sow division between international students and U.S. citizens, the essay focused overwhelmingly on issues concerning the H1-B visa program.  Coatsworth writes that “some unions in the United States have come down on the side of urging restrictions on or the outright elimination of these programs.”  While acknowledging that “the UAW has refrained from a blanket endorsement of the existing H-1B, TN, and F-1 programs” and “is advocating modifications to the programs that appear sensible enough on their face,” the article claims that these positions are but “a hollow promise.”  This, Coatsworth and Austell suggest, is because “the UAW advocates ‘a more data-driven process based on documented labor market needs’ to determine the number of visas made available in its proposed H-1B reforms.”

This is really something.  Think about it.  The provost of one of the country’s premier research universities opposes data-driven research!  But you can judge for yourself.  Read The UAW Statement on Immigration.  It proposes three major immigration reform measures:

  • Reforms of temporary worker visa programs, creating a more data-driven process based on documented labor market needs and adding protections against employer abuses.  Workers holding temporary visas (including H-1B visas for highly skilled workers in scientific and technical fields, a category that includes many UAW members employed as researchers at U.S. universities) will have greater freedom to change employers, and an easier time transitioning to permanent resident (green card) status and eventual citizenship.
  • No limits on employment-based green cards for foreign students who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in scientific and technical fields, along with other measures to liberalize visas for foreign students.  These changes will benefit many UAW members employed as teaching and research assistants at colleges and universities.
  • Changes in the family-based immigration system that will make it easier for the minor children and spouses of legal permanent residents to immigrate, but would also reduce the total number of visas available under the family preference system, and exclude some categories of relatives (including siblings of U.S. citizens).

In what world does this constitute “a hollow promise?”  And what evidence can Coatsworth provide for his contention that “In contrast, Columbia has been unwavering in its support of every one of these visa programs that benefit our international students?”  If that is true, how does he explain that despite the administration’s promises to “cover” an International Service Fee for such students starting this fall, Columbia apparently continued to charge the fee to many PhD students?

Readers of the Coatsworth-Austell op-ed might well ask in response, “What happens when your university’s views aren’t yours?”  Like, for instance, when your university tells you not to vote for a union that you might want to support?  Columbia maintains a supposedly “informational” website on “Student Unionization at Columbia,” which includes a section entitled Points of View.  One might think that this page should offer a variety of differing viewpoints, reflecting the role of a university as a place where opposing ideas may be debated and tested.  But think otherwise.  The page includes links to 25 different articles from a variety of sites, but all espouse an identical point of view — opposition to unions!  So much for the promised “exchange of viewpoints.”

Despite the Columbia administration’s strong-arm tactics, GWC-UAW has won broad support, including from political leaders.  On September 2, New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote Columbia President Bollinger to urge him to ensure a free and fair election without “intimidation or threats.”  On September 26, U.S. representatives Bobby Scott (VA-03) and Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), joined by 67 other members of Congress, issued a statement urging private colleges and universities “to ensure that TAs and RAs can fully and freely exercise these statutory rights, without interference, delay, or coercion.”  Nadler, I might add, represents the district in which Columbia’s main campus is located and was a member of my own Columbia graduating class.

Columbia likes to emphasize that New York City is its “campus.”  Indeed, the university’s full official name is Columbia University in the City of New York.  It is therefore significant that this week New York’s mayor, Bill DeBlasio, wrote this letter:

Dear Columbia University Research and Teaching Assistants:

Congratulations on the successful NLRB decision restoring the right to collective bargaining for RAs and TAs at private universities. You will have the opportunity to vote on December 7th and 8th on whether to join more than 35,000 UAW RAs and TAs at 45 university campuses across the United States who have successfully negotiated strong union contracts with improvements to pay, benefits and workplace rights.

The UAW is a strong progressive and experienced voice for academic workers. At New York University, for example, based on 18 years of organizing and bargaining with the support of the UAW, TAs and RAs have a collective bargaining agreement that makes its graduate employees some of the highest-paid and well-treated in the U.S. The agreement also makes NYU a more competitive, accessible and inclusive institution.

Prior to the NLRB decision, I and many other elected leaders stood in support of your union rights and urged Columbia to respect your democratic choice on this issue. I believe collective bargaining is a fair process and that the stability and predictability of a union contract will enable you to focus more of your energy on the critical research and teaching work that makes Columbia a world-renowned university – one of the great treasures of New York City.

As an alum of Columbia and NYU, and as an elected leader, I respect the critical work you do every day. By teaching thousands of undergraduates and conducting innovative research that helps bring roughly $1 billion in grants and contracts to the University each year, RAs and TAs make Columbia a world leader academically and make it an important economic engine in New York City.

I wish you the very best as you exercise your historic right to vote for union representation in the upcoming NLRB election. I look forward to hearing the results of the election and to working with you toward a more just and equitable city for all New Yorkers.

In August, I concluded my open letter to Provost Coatsworth on a somewhat personal note:

After graduating from Columbia I moved across the country to enter graduate school in history at the University of California at Berkeley.  Among Berkeley’s attractions, then and now, was its stellar reputation as one of the most highly rated History departments (and graduate schools more generally) in the country; its high ranking then and now was above Columbia’s.  At the time, we did not have a graduate student union, although many of us were seeking one.  But those who followed us did win this right and for some time now graduate student employees at Berkeley have been represented by UAW Local 1865.  And guess what?  Berkeley has retained its stellar reputation, its academic independence, its top faculty and highly talented graduate students, as well as its academic freedom, the presence of that union — which, by the way, is the same union now seeking recognition at Columbia — notwithstanding.

I assume you know our fellow historian Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who was previously at Columbia.  Dirks has faced imposing challenges at Berkeley — a major financial crisis, sexual harassment scandals, and various incidents of administrative malfeasance — but none of those problems has ever been attributed to the existence of unions among student employees or, for that matter, among the non-tenure-track faculty, who are represented there by the American Federation of Teachers.  Dirks certainly has never complained about this, nor have any faculty members that I know.

Of course, you too were once a graduate student.  Indeed, I am told that at the University of Wisconsin in the early ’60s you were something of a radical firebrand, an advocate of those supporting a “worker-student alliance.”  We’ve all changed since those days, I know.  I certainly have.  But it is one thing to abandon the arrogant idealism of youth for a mature and tolerant realism.  It is quite another to betray the basic principles that those of us who came of age in the ’60s have long upheld.  And here I should also condemn your betrayal in this matter as well of the principles of dispassionate scholarship, based on empirical evidence and logical reasoning, not ideology and craven self-interest, that we historians uphold as professionals.  Isn’t that what you have done?  For the fact of the matter is this: Columbia’s arguments about unionization have absolutely no basis in evidence or logic.  The concerns you raise have been shown, time and again, to be totally specious and animated only by ideology or interest.  They are designed, as your own graduate students put it, solely “to plant doubt and misinformation and ultimately interfere with graduate workers’ democratic decision—and right—to unionize.”

As an historian, as a scholar, as an educator, and as a veteran of the ’60s, you should know better.  Shame on you.

Since I wrote that letter Coatsworth’s behavior — and that of the entire Columbia administration — has only intensified this shame.  As an alumnus of Columbia, as a scholar, professor and historian, as a proud union member, and as an officer of the AAUP, I urge Columbia’s TA’s and RA’s to reject soundly the baseless and dishonest “arguments” made by your provost.  Far from being a threat to academic freedom or to scholarship in general, graduate student unions have already proven repeatedly that they provide a powerful means of defending those cherished values, even more important in the wake of last month’s presidential election.  The GWC-UAW has declared, “Especially with a U.S. President-Elect who has already said he wants to slash federal support for climate research and restrict opportunities for international students after graduation, we hoped the university would embrace our union as a potential ally on such issues and would see us as a partner in making Columbia better, more inclusive, and more competitive.”  It is beyond disappointing that Columbia’s administration, and especially its provost, who should be standing up for academic values instead of selling them out, are rejecting this opportunity to move forward together with their graduate students.

7 thoughts on “Columbia Provost Coatsworth Escalates Assault on Grad Student Union Rights

  1. I suspect that the election of Donald Trump caused Columbia to realize they don’t need to persuade students to reject a union. They only need to delay until Trump’s NLRB appointees reverse this decision. He will appoint two of the five immediately, replace the third Republican and the general counsel next year, and then replace the two Democrats in 2018 and 2019.

    • Because of Trump, the union vote matters all the more. If we secure a multi-year contract now, this will be valid even if the NLRB reverses the decision. So more is now at stake. We need the extra protections during a Trump administration.

  2. As someone who also works in Sweden, I should say that grad students are treated precisely as employees, with full rights, and more or less everyone is unionized (they can choose between a few unions). They find Coatsworth’s claims about the uniqueness of the advisor-student relationship defining graduate student life as stupid as Trump’s musings on the environment. as with so much else, the US remains mired in 19th century thinking while Europeans, with difficulty to be sure, attempt to move forward. sadly under trump this thinking will only grow more powerful.

  3. Pingback: Columbia Graduate Students Vote to Unionize | ACADEME BLOG

  4. Columbia is a big place and as President Bollnger’s comments about a university’s “special social responsibility’ and the importance of “critical thinking and tolerance” suggests, it should be able to accommodate a wide spectrum of views. For that reason, among many others, it is disappointing for me as another of Professor Reichman’s Columbia classmates to see those in control of the university administration behaving in the manner these articles reflect. I find myself asking why it is over the decades Columbia leadership seems to get the big, transcendent issues so wrong and all too frequently find itself aligned with the illiberal forces of ignorance, injustice and inequality.

  5. Pingback: Columbia Graduate Students Vote to Unionize | ACADEME BLOG

  6. Pingback: Noble Words and Foul Deeds at Columbia | ACADEME BLOG

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