Following the University’s decision to file an objection with the National Labor Relations Board regarding teaching and research assistants’ vote to unionize, the NLRB announced that it will hold a hearing to evaluate the University’s claims on Jan. 17.
Students voted 1602 to 623 in favor of joining Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers last month. In August, the National Labor Relations Board gave graduate students at private universities the right to unionize, following a two-year campaign by graduate students.
In response, the NLRB has granted a hearing to examine six of the University’s seven objections, stating that each “raises material and substantial issues of fact that would be best resolved by a hearing.”
The University’s objections are based on improper conduct on the days of the election, claiming that GWC-UAW agents surveilled polling places and coerced eligible voters, among other allegations. As a part of the objection, the University is asking the NLRB to set aside the election’s results and have students vote again.
The NLRB rejected the University’s seventh claim, that the results of the election were affected by the improper conduct Columbia administrators have alleged occurred on the day of the vote noting that Columbia had not yet produced any evidence to support that claim.
University Provost John Coatsworth sent an email to the Columbia community on Monday explaining the University’s reasoning for filing an objection with the NLRB. He emphasized that if there had been alternative means to “protect voters’ rights and compliance with NLRB rules” without filing an objection, the University would have done so.
"All of us have chosen to be part of this community because we value different viewpoints and believe that individual rights matter,” Coatsworth wrote. “Actions that could intimidate voters or create the impression of surveillance, such as installing a camera operated by union supporters just steps from the polling place in Earl Hall, are inconsistent with these basic values and violate NLRB election rules."
On the same day that the NLRB announced it would hold a hearing, a letter signed by 168 faculty members urging the University to withdraw its challenge to the election was delivered to administrators.
The letter, addressed to University President Lee Bollinger and Coatsworth, pushed back against the University’s allegations regarding the election, arguing that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of unionization and that the University should respect the outcome of the election.
“The issue now is not whether a union is a good or bad idea, but whether the university will respect the outcome of a democratic process,” faculty members wrote.
Signatories include history professor Eric Foner and English professor Erik Gray. Some faculty left comments in addition to their signatures.
“As a senior professor of labor law, I can indeed attest that the University's challenge to the NLRB election raises just the kind of petty matters that high-paid antiunion consultants routinely raise and that in no way impaired the democratic choice of the graduate workers,” Law professor Mark Barenberg wrote.
Coatsworth’s email can be read in full below.
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
Last month, after an election to determine whether Columbia’s research and teaching assistants will be represented by the United Auto Workers, the University formally asked the National Labor Relations Board to examine whether certain actions by union representatives and Board agents responsible for supervising the election improperly affected the election outcome. I am writing to explain why we did so.
All of us have chosen to be part of this community because we value different viewpoints and believe that individual rights matter. Actions that could intimidate voters or create the impression of surveillance, such as installing a camera operated by union supporters just steps from the polling place in Earl Hall, are inconsistent with these basic values and violate NLRB election rules. In addition, the NLRB Regional Office’s reversal regarding the presentation of identification at the polls (first requiring, then encouraging, then ultimately not even allowing poll watchers to request IDs), not only created confusion but had the likely effect of allowing ineligible voters to vote, while forcing eligible voters to cast challenged ballots. Students arrived at Earl Hall only to be told that their names already had been checked off as having voted there.
If there were a means to protect voters’ rights and compliance with NLRB rules without filing objections with the NLRB, or, for that matter, if students troubled by these violations and others during the election were able to raise their concerns directly with the NLRB, we could have considered a different course. However, those alternatives do not exist: Under the National Labor Relations Act, our filing of objections is the sole available recourse for ensuring compliance with rules governing the election and to speak on behalf of student voters who have no independent voice in the process. The NLRB has responded to our filing by recognizing that the objections we raised, “if true, could have affected the outcome of the election and would, therefore, warrant setting aside the election.” The Board has scheduled a hearing in this matter later in the month.
I want to be clear that the University has taken this action mindful of concerns that extend beyond the outcome of last month’s election and the manner in which it was conducted. Our academic community may be operating within a new and very different framework for engaging with research and teaching assistants and for preparing them to have careers as scholars, the latter being one of our core functions as a university. That new framework would be governed by federal law and by the National Labor Relations Board.
In this setting, the prevailing rules must be scrupulously observed by all parties if we are to reach fair outcomes and effectively support all of our teaching and research assistants. As I said on many occasions before and after last month’s election, we will continue to strive so that Columbia remains a place where every student can achieve the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment. The actions taken by the University since the election should be understood as consistent with, and essential to that commitment.
John H. Coatsworth