Noble Words and Foul Deeds at Columbia



On November 17, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger spoke to attendees at the university’s annual Hamilton Award Dinner.  Here is part of the Columbia Spectator’s report on his remarks:

“The University is not a political institution—we do not take positions on political issues. But when you have a position that produces a president and vice president that challenge the central idea of a university, one has to do something,” Bollinger said to applause.  “The denial of climate change, the rejection of the fact of evolution, the attack on free speech, the dissemination of falsehoods deliberately and intentionally that would make George Orwell seem naïve and unimaginative,” he continued, “the attack on groups that we celebrate at Columbia and embrace as part of our greatness—these are not political issues. This is where we stand. This is a challenge to what we stand for.”


On December 9, the NLRB certified the results of an election to determine whether Columbia’s graduate student employees would be represented by the Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW.  The vote was 1602 to 623 in favor of the union.  As readers of this blog know, Columbia, represented mainly by its provost, historian John Coatsworth, fought unionization tooth and nail from the beginning.  On Friday, December 16 Columbia filed a challenge to the vote with the National Labor Relations Board.  The complaint charges that “known union agents” were standing closer to polling places than allowed, and that voters should have been required to present identification.

The claims are ludicrous on their face.  The election was conducted by the NLRB under standard rules and procedures.  According to the board 2225 people voted.  Three ballots were voided and 647 were challenged.  Even if all 647 challenges were in favor of the union and all challenges were upheld, the margin of victory would still ensure a union win.  The claim that union “agents” could influence the vote by standing too close to polling places insults the intelligence.  Does Columbia, which has claimed all along to support the independence of its graduate students, have such little respect for them as to believe that so many of them would allow the mere presence of such “agents” to sway their votes?

The real motivation behind the challenge is obvious.  Columbia seeks to drag out the fight in the hope that a new Trump administration will appoint new members to the NLRB who will then overturn the board’s August decision to permit student employees at private colleges and universities to unionize.

Over 100 graduate students responded to these objections by holding a protest yesterday.  “Although there may have been some procedural difficulties, I think that the size of the margin indicates that there wasn’t any systematic difficulty in the election results,” Gary Howarth, a graduate student in chemistry and GWC organizer, said at the protest. “With the 72 percent victory, I think it’s a resounding [vote] in favor, and I don’t imagine that any small problems could counteract that mandate.”

“They can say whatever they want to say, but everybody knows that this was done democratically. … The only reason why you would contest this election is if you wanted to delay the fair process of bargaining,” Danielle Carr, a graduate student in anthropology, said. “I think this is the strategy we’re going to see going forward in the Trump administration as people refuse to recognize the power of the workers.”

So much for Bollinger’s noble words.  Trump’s attacks on unions are apparently not included by Bollinger as among the attacks on groups that Columbia “celebrates.”  Trump, it would seem is only a “challenge to what we stand for” when the university finds it convenient.  But he’s a welcome ally when it comes to union-busting.

2 thoughts on “Noble Words and Foul Deeds at Columbia

  1. Maybe instead of saving money by weakening graduate student bargaining power and avoiding any new obligations that might arise from this, Columbia should save money by reducing the salaries of its top administrators.

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Posts of 2016 | ACADEME BLOG

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