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Members of Congress Call for Fair and Free Elections, Champion TAs’ and RAs’ Right to Collective Bargaining

Community Petition Urging University Administrators to End Their Anti-Union Campaign Gains Momentum 

NEW YORK – As support for graduate workers’ right to collective bargaining builds nationwide, more than 60 members of Congress today issued a statement urging Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and other university administrators in support of fair and free union elections. U.S. Representatives Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler along with dozens of other congressional leaders applauded the National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision to restore the rights of teaching assistants and research assistants to bargain collectively.

Collective bargaining between university administrators and the representatives chosen by TAs and RAs will provide an orderly process by which these employees can seek to improve their wages, hours, and working conditions,” the letter reads. “This will allow both parties to resolve employment disputes in a manner that is consistent with the traditions of academic freedom and the highest-quality teaching, learning, and research.”

Nearly 18,000 students, graduate workers, faculty and other community members have also signed a petition in support of graduate workers’ right to stand together in a union and negotiate collectively for better pay and benefits and improved workplace conditions. The petition, which continues to gain signatures, asks university administrators at Columbia and other prestigious universities to end their aggressive campaigns to discourage TAs and RAs from voting in favor of a union.

Columbia University’s administration is trying to stand in the way of workers’ right to a democratic election. It has been actively campaigning to deter students from forming unions under the guise of providing objective, helpful information. For example, the administration posted frequently asked questions about forming unions online. The answers are straight out of an anti-union playbook, aiming to create fear and a sense of the unknown among graduate workers and ignoring the benefits for workers of joining together in a union.

“With our rights fully restored and thousands of faculty members, students and other supporters standing with us, we’re forming our union to make Columbia a better and more accessible institution for teaching, research and learning,” said Olga Brudastova, a PhD student and researcher in the Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics departments at Columbia University. “Columbia graduate workers have already won tangible improvements like increased pay and child care subsidies by coming together, and we know from examples around the country that where graduate workers have unions, our universities are transformed for the better. Whether in the classroom or in a lab, we have a right to sit as equals with the administration, and we’re proud to work together with our elected representatives to make sure these world-renowned institutions of higher education are inclusive, open and respectful to students, employees and our surrounding communities.”

Graduate workers play an increasingly indispensable role in higher education instruction and research and at Columbia, graduate workers help bring in nearly $1 billion annually in grants and contracts. At the same time, graduate workers face constant insecurity and unpredictability of working conditions – growing teaching loads, late pay, unreliable health benefits and sexual harassment, with little meaningful recourse. While the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW has won numerous improvements to parental leave, childcare and pay, Columbia University has failed to fully address the concerns of graduate workers and, in addition to its current anti-union campaign, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire an anti-worker law firm to oppose workers’ right to organize.

“We’re at a transformational moment for American higher education that will strengthen academic freedom and allow graduate employees at our nation’s premier universities to be the best teachers, inventors, designers, researchers and leaders,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A. “As administrators at Columbia, Harvard and other universities heard clearly today, workers do better when they can bargain collectively and make improvements in healthcare, job security, fair pay and policies that create more diverse, just, and accessible places to work and learn.”

The UAW, which has led the way in higher education organizing nationwide, represents more than 35,000 graduate workers at 45 campuses – more than any other U.S. union. After an eight-year effort to win back their union, NYU graduate workers won a neutrality agreement with the university administration in 2013. Since then, thousands of graduate workers at Columbia, The New School, Harvard and other universities started organizing their unions through the UAW. Recently, graduate workers at Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh have launched similar efforts to form a union. In 2015, 2,200 UConn graduate assistants organized and bargained their first contract with the UAW, and adjunct faculty at Barnard College also voted to form a union with the UAW and the administration acknowledged it.

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