PROCEEDINGS OF THE STUDENT CAUCUS OF THE UNIVERSITY SENATE:
A HEARING ON THE IMPLICATIONS OF UNIONIZATION
FOR COLUMBIA STUDENTS WHO TEACH
January 30, 2002
Davis Auditorium in the Schapiro Engineering Building
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Welcome to the first of two hearings on unionization of students who teach at Columbia. I want to offer special thanks to the panelists who have agreed, in some cases on rather short notice, to come to this public forum and answer questions from students from all across the University. These hearings have been conceived and organized by student senators, and they do not represent the efforts of the University Senate as a whole, which is composed of faculty, administrators, alumni, and students.
I think I speak for all present here when I say that the best outcome to the issue of student unionization will emerge as a result of informed and open discussion. The purpose of these hearings is to advance to that desired outcome by eliciting and recording information we need to form concrete opinions. Our purpose tonight is not to explore whether students at Columbia can unionize, but whether we should unionize. We have organized these hearings with crucial input from union organizers, the administration, and students on both sides of the issue. In that same spirit, tonight, we rely on support from all members of the Columbia community as we begin to tease out the complex questions surrounding student unionization. It is crucial that these hearings be conducted in an atmosphere of civility and openness, so that we students can hear and understand both sides of the issue. We trust that all people gathered here, for whom this issue matters, will lend us their respectful attention and contribute to that atmosphere of honest inquiry and openness.
Tonight we will be asking questions of two panels. The first panel, which supports unionization, will answer questions for fifty minutes. The second panel, which opposes student unionization, will then come up and answer questions for another fifty minutes. For the sake of covering as much ground as possible, we ask that the panelists keep their answers to no more than two minutes—so I may be interrupting some of you, and ask you to hurry up. After the questions each panel will have ten minutes for closing statements. While there is no direct audience participation, we urge all of you to listen carefully to tonight’s discussion and forward to us questions and concerns you would like to see addressed at next week’s hearing. For this hearing, we met repeatedly with members of both panels, and received advice from them on questions they felt were most fundamental to clarifying the issue. We have also circulated in advance sample questions to both panels.
The members of our first panel are Beverly Gage, a graduate student from the History Department; Dermot Ryan, a graduate student in the English Department; Dave Sherman, an English Ph.D. student from NYU and a member of the GSOC [Graduate Student Organizing Committee] UAW [United Auto Workers] bargaining team there; and Professor Elizabeth Blackmar, of the History Department. Although I’ll introduce them again later, I’ll mention the names of our second panel, which are Giovanni Ruffini from the History Department; Sarah Shuwairi, from the Psychology Department; Henry Pinkham, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and Professor Joe Connors of the Art History Department.
I’ll briefly introduce who the student caucus panel is, who will be doing the questions. From the far end of the table, Sofia Berger, from the School of Engineering and Applied Science; Rohit Aggarwala, senator for the social sciences from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Hilary Rosenstein, senator from Columbia College; Jenny Mathews, from the Health Sciences campus; Marni Hall is a senator for the natural sciences, from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and I am Roosevelt Montás, humanities senator for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and chair of the student caucus.
MARNI HALL: Okay. The first question we’d like to direct to Beverly and to Dermot. If you could, give us a brief sort of introduction to why you’d like the graduate students to unionize.
DERMOT RYAN: I think the biggest reason I think a union would be good here is probably the same one as a lot of people here in the audience want a union for. Basically, I think we should have more money for the work we do. I also would like the opportunity to sit down with the administration and have the ability to negotiate over child care, health care—bread-and-butter issues like that—and I think we’ve all felt, since we’ve been organizing over the last year or so, that we really have had a positive impact on campus. We’ve built up a community, we’ve also had great improvements. I also want to mention, though, that there are some people those improvements aren’t getting to, people in Film and Architecture, who are still getting paid far too little money for the work they do. Also, for me, I want to have the security of the contract; to negotiate a contract that— I think we can get better benefits. I think we can get higher stipends. I think what’s happened at NYU is so inspiring, and I think we want to have a contract that’s legally binding.
BEVERLY GAGE: Yes, I would second a lot of what Dermot said. The reasons I got involved in trying to organize a union here were a lot of bread-and-butter issues, as Dermot mentioned—stipends, health care, child care—but I think for me, too, and I think for a lot of graduate students who have gotten involved, it’s also a fundamental question of respect for the work that we do, wanting to make that work visible, wanting to make sure the work we’re doing is done under the best conditions possible, so we can be the best teachers possible. And, I think, for me, as well, I consider unionizing an investment in my future and in the future of academia, as someone who wants to be an academic. I hear a lot that there are no academic jobs out there, and when I began to think about it, I thought, Wait. That’s just not true. Most of the people in this room already have academic jobs. The problem is that a lot of academic jobs these days don’t pay wages, benefits, and a salary you can really live on and make a life out of.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Yes, I’d like to follow up. Dermot, you mentioned getting more money in our stipends, which, as a student who teaches and has a second job, I certainly want too. Are Columbia stipend levels particularly low? How do they compare to other graduate—both unionized graduate students and nonunionized graduate students—as far as stipend levels?
DERMOT RYAN: All right. Two points on that. I think it’s interesting that you have a second job. I think one of the crucial issues here is, there are a lot of people in this audience, a lot of international students, who, because of their visas, can’t work. I’ve got a funny story. I got an e-mail from somebody who asked me to teach them Irish, and, as I’m from Dublin—I’m a Dubliner—none of us speak any Irish at all. So I forwarded my e-mail on to an Irish colleague of mine, who wrote back that he couldn’t accept the job; because of his visa, it wasn’t appropriate for him to be taking a second job. So I think that is key, the fact that a lot of people can’t have that second job. But I think, are our stipends good? Yes, but I think just today we’ve seen there’s another campus just down the road that has won incredible benefits. You know, the bottom stipend is going to be $15,000 for people in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and rising year by year. But I think you [Dave Sherman, from NYU] could probably address—
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: On this specific question—Columbia stipend levels are competitive and comparable to other schools, both unionized and nonunionized, as they stand now?
DERMOT RYAN: I don’t feel so. I feel that now we’ve got—
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Well, it’s an empirical question.
BEVERLY GAGE: I would say there are a couple of things you have to take into account. First of all, Columbia has recently raised its stipends, which has been great, but, as Dermot has said, they’re not necessarily equalized across the whole campus, so to some degree you have to compare it in that sense. Secondly, Columbia probably is competitive across the nation, but there’s no place that’s as expensive to live as New York City. So I think that is one of the reasons that the main unionization campaigns at private universities have taken place, thus far, in New York City—first at NYU, of course, and now here. And as Dermot mentioned, down at NYU—I don’t know if everyone’s heard this today—but NYU graduate students have ratified their first contract. It’s the first-ever contract— [Applause]
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Yes. We’re going to move on to the follow-up question. I think we got the answer we needed.
MARNI HALL: I guess the follow-up would be, before the effort to unionize began, what sort of efforts were made to go through the existing channels, whether it was GSAC [Graduate Student Advisory Council], or meetings with the administration, or any other sort of groups on campus?
DERMOT RYAN: Well, I’m the GSAC rep for English, so I think GSAC has done some wonderful work. I think it’s made a lot of important work, doing a lot of this research, a lot of this comparative work, comparing stipends, looking at health care, and lobbying for improvements in those. I think it also is doing incredibly useful work for graduate students as students, pressurizing the University to improve library collections, look at carrel allocations, and stuff like that. That sort of work they’ll continue to do, but I think we have to recognize that the GSAC are an advisory council. They can only make recommendations. We’re trying to form an employees’ union, and basically we can sit down and negotiate a contract, which, if the members vote for it and it’s ratified, is legally binding. I think a lot of people want that security.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: One question that’s come up—which I’d like to hear any of you speak to—is whether graduate students across the departments have, in fact, a coherent set of interests that can be negotiated meaningfully, by one bargaining agent.
BEVERLY GAGE: I’ll speak to that. I think when people talk about unionization, one of the first things that pops into their heads, of course, is stipends, and those are different from department to department. They will probably remain different from department to department, even after we have a union contract (and we can get into the details later of how that would all work). But the fact of the matter is that most of what we would be negotiating for in a union contract are policies that apply across departments—things like health care, things like child care, things like having a grievance procedure, some way we can negotiate if we have problems and really work them out with the administration. So there are an array of things that not only apply across departments, but are also issues that can’t be dealt with at the departmental level. You know, I can’t go to the History Department and say, "Could you guys work on the health care plan?" because they don’t have the power to do it, and the only people who do are the administrators. So I think we all have a strong interest in working together on those issues.
DERMOT RYAN: Can I just add to something that Beverly touched on? There’s some concern out there that what unions are about is leveling. Basically, we have to recognize that there are people out there with really great stipends, and that isn’t going to change. The reason those stipends are so high is market forces. Basically, Columbia has to compete with other prestige universities to get people to come here, and that isn’t going to change. Basically, unions aren’t about leveling, we’re really about raising the floor, bringing people who are very badly paid and improving those things. But also, the NYU contract is going to show that even those people who are earning top stipends can negotiate guaranteed stipend increases into their contract. That’s legally binding, that will happen. You know that your stipend’s going to grow over the course of the contract.
ROOSEVELT MONTAS: [To Dave Sherman of NYU] OK, make it very brief. We want to move on to another line of questioning.
DAVE SHERMAN: Just to say how it played out, specifically, with the NYU contract: because of the diversity of stipends we established minimum salaries with no cap. At the same time we also established guaranteed raises by percentage, for those already above the minimum.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: One line of question we would like to open up now is how the union works exactly, and the campaign to unionize—specific questions about signing the cards. What did signing a card exactly mean?
BEVERLY GAGE: Just so everybody knows what it is that Roosevelt’s referring to—and I know we have a lot of card signers in the audience—but last year we went around campus, talked to a lot of people—graduate students went around, talking with other graduate students—and people who were supporters of the union, or supported an election for the union, signed cards. They were cards you filled out that said, "I want to have a union election on this campus." Those cards were sent to the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB]. It is their requirement that you have— Their requirement is 30 percent, we have a much higher number than that. But you send these cards in to show that there are people on campus who are interested in having an election.
So that’s what those cards are for, and that’s what they meant. They were presented to the National Labor Relations Board so we could have an election, which, I would add, Columbia has done a great deal to delay up to this point. But we will have it this semester.
DERMOT RYAN: Can I just add one thing to that? I think it is important to realize that when we were signing people up, and when we submitted those cards to the National Labor Relations Board, the University could have stipulated; we could have had an election within the next number of weeks. So when we submitted those cards we made sure we had a very strong majority, because the one thing we never wanted was to have an election here and lose it. So when we did submit— It makes sense, right? When we submitted our cards, we had a large majority, because we knew we could. The University was in their court, so we could have had an election there and then, last spring.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Okay. Another semifactual question. I read the text of the card and it says, essentially, we authorize the UAW to be a bargaining agent. Even after you have a majority of cards there still needs to be an election, so the card doesn’t constitute something like a vote.
BEVERLY GAGE: No. Just because you’ve signed the card doesn’t have anything to do with your vote. You can still vote yes or no in the election. One thing that could have happened, that we did not expect to happen, and we didn’t ask to have happen, but we could have presented those cards, Columbia could have looked at them and said, "Okay, you have a majority of signers. We respect your choice. Go ahead. Let’s sit down and bargain." That happens at other companies; in other countries that’s the law. That could have happened here; we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t expect that Columbia would do it, and we always wanted an election.
JENNY MATHEWS: Could you just explain what a bargaining unit is, and who’s involved in a bargaining unit?
DERMOT RYAN: Yes. The bargaining unit— I was going to do it, probably in the wrong order—the bargaining unit is basically the people who will be represented. We’re going to bargain a contract; that will be the people covered by that contract. The bargaining unit we’re going to have here at Columbia, that is going to be decided by the National Labor Relations Board, and they’re considering that at the moment. We had hearings over the summer. The University argued that nobody worked, so we shouldn’t have had any bargaining unit, and that no one should have the right to have an election. And we presented our own case for what we thought was an appropriate bargaining unit. But ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board are who decide what constitutes the bargaining unit. Is that clear?
MARNI HALL: I have a follow-up question to that. If students who currently TA courses are not included in the bargaining unit, and there is an election and there is a union, would those students not be able to teach any longer because they’re not part of the union? Would they still be able to teach classes? Specifically, for example, students uptown who teach courses down here, who may not be part of the bargaining unit.
BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, as Dermot said, we don’t know exactly what the bargaining unit will be right now, but we expect, fully—the bargaining unit we’ve requested is for all TAs on the campus to be members of the unit, in which case those TAs you’re talking about will be union members, and will be covered by the contract.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Even if it’s uptown?
BEVERLY GAGE: If they teach on this campus, I would assume so. Again, these are technical sorts of things that need to be worked out.
DERMOT RYAN: I think this is really important. If I’m understanding the question correctly, the implication would be that if you weren’t a union member, you wouldn’t be allowed to be a TA, and that’s illegal. That’s against the law, under the labor law here.
MARNI HALL: Well, in the case of someone who does not receive compensation for their teaching, that is just part of—
BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, hopefully, under a union contract, they would receive compensation for the teaching. That would be it.
MARNI HALL: But if they weren’t part of the bargaining unit, in the hypothetical situation….?
BEVERLY GAGE: No, I honestly anticipate that if we had a union contract, all TA positions on this campus would be paid positions. People would not be banned from teaching because they weren’t union members, somehow, but I suspect that those unpaid TA positions would simply become paid positions.
JENNY MATHEWS: I have one more question. I’m sorry. Why are TAs from the Health Sciences campus excluded from the bargaining unit?
BEVERLY GAGE: Again, this is one of the things that’s before the National Labor Relations Board at the moment. We don’t know whether the bargaining unit that comes up will include Health Sciences, whether it will be restricted to the Morningside campus. We have asked that it be restricted to people who teach on the Morningside campus because that’s the way it’s worked in just about every other union on the campus, and because we think it represents sort of how things work at Columbia.
DERMOT RYAN: Can I just add to that, as well? We have been up to the Health Sciences, and we’ve talked to people up there. Our position has always been—it makes sense—that the union wants to grow. We want to organize anybody who wants to be part of the union, but we just didn’t feel it was appropriate that they be part of our bargaining unit. But if there are TAs up in the Health Sciences who want to form their own bargaining unit, and if the National Labor Relations Board makes the decision to exclude the Health Sciences—if there are people still up there who want to organize a TA graduate union, we’ll be up there organizing. They’ll be organizing themselves.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: So the specific reason they haven’t been organized is because at other schools, it has worked on the model—
DERMOT RYAN: No, no. Because at Columbia, historically, the unions here at Columbia—there are a number of unions here at Columbia, and a number of unions up at Health Sciences. Historically, no bargaining unit ever straddled both campuses. I think people here, and people in the Health Sciences, for the most part that makes sense. It’s about a community of interest.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Can you explain the difference between a closed shop bargaining unit and an open shop bargaining unit?
DERMOT RYAN: Okay. A closed shop is against the law. You cannot have a closed shop. That would basically be that you couldn’t get a job unless you were already a member of the union. There’s a union shop—these are things we will bargain over, when we bargain our contract. But a union shop would mean that everybody in the bargaining unit would pay union dues; an agency shop would mean that you could be a union member, or else you could pay an agency fee. Then you’ve got an open shop, which would be that you could be a member of the union or not.
Now the reason why people in other universities have often—like graduate student unions—have bargained for an agency shop is, under American labor law, if the union bargains a great contract—we all get great stipends, we improve our child care and health care, and we have an open shop in our contract—that means that everything we negotiate in our contract, all the benefits, will go to people whether they pay dues or don’t pay dues. You can imagine, that’s an incentive to a free ride, right? You don’t have to pay any dues, and that is a way of corroding the strength of the union. An agency shop would be if you pay union dues, or an agency fee, and the agency fee is basically recognizing the fact that the union has been instrumental in sitting down and working through a contract, and will also remain there, providing services for everybody who works, if they are filing a grievance procedure.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: What’s a typical difference between the agency fee and the dues? At NYU, for example?
DAVE SHERMAN: I believe it’s the same. We just ratified—it’s 1.5 percent, in either case. The point is—
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: —whether you’re a member of the union who can vote on unionization or whether you’re not, you pay the same dues. The same amount.
DAVE SHERMAN: Right. That’s not always the case, though. I think, you know, it would be 1.5 percent or 1.2 percent. It would vary. But the agency fee would be close to the dues. But you basically want to be a union member so you can have input into the bargaining—
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Especially if you pay the same dues.
DAVE SHERMAN: Yeah.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: To follow up on that—the 1.5 percent covers what? Your cash salary? Your salary and benefits?
DAVE SHERMAN: It’s 1.5 percent of your gross salary.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: OK, but not counting the value of the benefits?
DAVE SHERMAN: No. None of the benefits are included in there.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: And the tuition exemption—
DERMOT RYAN: That’s something else. That’s a bit of misinformation that’s floating around. [In fact] it will only be on the stipend, only on the stipend, only on your salary in the semester that you’re working; 1.5 percent of the stipend, not off your tuition, not off your benefits.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Okay. I guess the next thing is, to draw, in fact, on both Beverly and Dermot but particularly with Dave—given what happened today at NYU, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the experience from the vote at NYU, up until today, which is the experience we haven’t had, and we may or may not see.
DAVE SHERMAN: Sure. There’s a complicated time line I won’t bore you with. The point is we had a vote, and after the vote we had a long campaign to pressure the administration to recognize the results of the vote and begin negotiations with us. The administration resisted us for a long time, claiming a lot of things I think you’re probably seeing here, too, that it would degrade the quality of education at NYU. When they were finally forced to negotiate with us, just by sheer political pressure and by realizing they had no leg to stand on in their arguments, we started negotiations. That was ten months ago. For the past ten months we’ve been working on the contract in great detail—on everything, all the issues that have been mentioned—and have come to this, today. Is that the kind of picture you were looking at?
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Perhaps you could tell us a little bit in terms—particularly—I understand [at] NYU there was the vote, then the university actually resisted recognizing the votes, so the votes were counted, or was there an appeal, which is—
DAVE SHERMAN: Yes, well, when a decision in the National Labor Relations Board—the regional National Labor Relations Board—that said we were employees with the right to bargain collectively and we had our vote on the strength of that— NYU filed an appeal to the federal level of the National Labor Relations Board, and the ballot boxes were sealed, pending that appeal, and there was an appeal to the decision that we were not of employee status. After that decision came, eight or nine months later, that we were, in fact, employees with the right to bargain, we had the votes counted then. That was about a year ago. At that point NYU continued to resist the bargaining, so we had a different kind of campaign at that point. We had a more political campaign. It left the courts. We had established all our rights in the courts, and it was a question of forcing the administration to follow the decisions of the courts, which they finally did on April 1, or at the end of March 2001. We started bargaining soon thereafter.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Okay. And they recognized—I guess I’m a little confused. So the national NLRB issued a decision.
DAVE SHERMAN: Right. About upholding the original decision.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: But is that not legally binding on the university?
DAVE SHERMAN: Yeah, yeah. It’s actually interesting. It’s legally binding, but there’s not a strong mechanism of enforcement for that agency—the National Labor Relations Board—so what began was actually a lawsuit by the NLRB against NYU, a lawsuit that would have gone to the federal courts. NYU was willing to take that. They were actually going to sit out a lawsuit against the government, before bargaining with us. It was just too severe a strategy, though, and they changed their minds.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: To get back, then, to your contract, could you outline for us—I guess we had a little taste of what the results were—how is it bargained? It takes ten months, it sounds like. Obviously that all depends, but in your case it took ten months. What’s the procedure? How are graduate students represented? Is it somebody from the UAW who comes in to negotiate? How does that work?
DAVE SHERMAN: Right. Right. Well, the first part, the part of the procedure that gave us the most momentum at the beginning, was a large membership meeting, where we voted on our proposals, on our contract proposals, that we would bring to the table, to the administration, in our first bargaining session. So we had to do a lot of surveying of the membership—what were the most important issues—
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Who’s the we? Who’s the bargaining committee?
DAVE SHERMAN: Right. The bargaining committee is a committee of people in the bargaining unit—GAs and TAs—who are elected by the rest of the membership. So we elected a bargaining committee. We had a widespread survey and other research, departmental meetings, to really refine our issues and their priorities. We brought that to the first bargaining session, and it took ten months. It took nineteen bargaining sessions, including some academic breaks. It’s a fairly decent pace, and it can happen once the administration decides to let it happen.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Could you, perhaps, give us some sense of what you went in with, what you came away with, or compare the two? Then, maybe— I don’t know how much you want, or can, speak about, but what kinds of things the administration couldn’t budge on, or wouldn’t.
DAVE SHERMAN: Well, you know, obviously this is very particular to every workplace, but we came in with a real problem with salary and health care (it sounds like there are some similar concerns here)—there was a lot of inequity in salary. There were some fairly reasonable salaries, but there was a discrepancy in some cases of 150 percent, so we had to bring the bottom up and we had to have health care paid for and the program improved. There were a lot of services the university just didn’t provide. So we bargained over the quality of the plan as well as the price of the plan.
We were equally concerned about the grievance and arbitration procedure. There was a lot of discussion about child care and about housing, and we made improvements in child care. We had a more difficult time with housing because of some particular circumstances at NYU, but we made a lot of improvements in almost everything else that affects our quality of life.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: But from what I’ve seen, in both the press and a handout I just received about the contract, I did not see housing or child care mentioned explicitly. Are they just details that were left out of what I’ve seen, or are they kind of side agreements that you’ve had with the university?
DAVE SHERMAN: I expect they just weren’t included because there were so many details, but we have a fund of $115,000 for child care subsidies.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Did you have any before?
DAVE SHERMAN: We had a fund before of $85,000, that started after the union campaign was in full swing. So they added $25,000 to that, and housing—they included a side letter. You can also do this in a contract. You can include something called a side letter, that gives a statement of intent to work with a union on issues that aren’t fully resolved, that guarantees that an administration will sit down and meet with a union, to work on things. Like housing, in our case, was a major one, because we couldn’t put anything in the contract.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Can I ask also— Did anything in the contract touch on some of the issues that are frequently mentioned as being more academic in nature, and that’s one of the criticisms—such as student:TA ratios, which kind of is both in some ways, how TAs are selected, issues such as that? Were they included? Were they dealt with at all?
DAVE SHERMAN: For the most part they weren’t included. We never had the intention to deal with anything academic. Workload is an interesting case, though. We ended up with a clause defining our workload as an average of twenty hours a week over the course of a semester, and this is the kind of flexible clause that will work for a variety of different kinds of departments.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: How are the hours counted?
DAVE SHERMAN: This is important too. We had to bargain over what counted as our work, and we successfully bargained to include all prep time, all reading time, as well as grading and actual class time and office hours. Things like that.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Can I also just ask— Perhaps all three of you could speak— NYU is kind of the most immediate case, the nearest school and a private university, but there are lots of similar unions at state schools, which has not been an issue. The issue before the NLRB really has to do with private schools, as I understand it. Could you talk about the experience at some of these other schools? Any of you?
BEVERLY GAGE: Well, first I would just like to add a point about this question that’s come up a lot on this campus, of how you separate employment issues from academic issues. As Dave said, we never wanted (and they didn’t want to at NYU) to bargain over academic issues—faculty appointments or something, right? That’s not the point of what we’re doing here. What they did at NYU was to simply say that at the outset, to agree, as bargaining began, it was very important to the university administration that they obtain control of things like TA appointments, not so much how they’re made but who’s assigned to what class—academic discretion. So they agreed, at the outset, the union and the university, to simply not bargain over those issues that were considered academic issues. That’s what I would anticipate happening here. I don’t think anyone’s gotten into this, to make a strong stand on what might be considered academic issues. There are a couple of places where the line might be a little blurry, and that’s what you work out at the negotiating table.
So that’s just to clarify that. As far as what’s happened at other campuses, the argument’s been out there that private universities are so different from public universities. They don’t really seem terribly different at all. Most states have state labor boards, and we’re going to the National Labor Relations Board, but the way a union is going to work on this campus is no different from the way it’s worked in the University of California system, at the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin. There have been graduate unions in this country for thirty years at this point, and it’s not like it’s— NYU’s triumph is great and it’s been a long, hard fight, but it’s not as if we’re inventing this out of whole cloth here.
HILARY ROSENSTEIN: Could you explain the circumstances and the process for organizing and initiating a strike, and, I guess, address also if there’s going to be any kind of striker’s penalty, and also sympathy striking.
BEVERLY GAGE: Sure. Okay. So how does a strike work? Obviously strikes do happen. They’re usually a measure of last resort, and in graduate unions strikes have generally happened for two reasons. One is recognition. We, fortunately, have a legal process we can go through. The courts can say, "Yes, you’re employees, you deserve a union," and we hopefully can be recognized and sit down and bargain with the administration. So recognition is one reason there have been strikes. The other reason is if you’re at an impasse in a contract. If there are things the graduate employees simply feel they need, don’t want to budge on, and the university is unwilling to bargain over them further, there’s the possibility of a strike.
So, in graduate unions, that’s generally when strikes happen, and for the most part they’ve been very short and very effective at getting graduate employees what they want. So, how does a strike happen, if it happens, which is really the question here?
It’s a democratic process. No one can make you go out on strike, and if people feel they’ve reached some sort of impasse a membership meeting is called, and people vote on whether or not they want to go on strike. If two-thirds of the membership of the union votes to go on strike, a strike can be called.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Two-thirds of the membership, or two-thirds of the people—
BEVERLY GAGE: Well, two-thirds of the people who vote in the strike vote.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: —who vote on the strike.
BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Right. As in this election that we’re facing. Two-thirds of the people who show up to vote for it—well, this would be a majority—but in a strike case, two-thirds of the people who are voting. At that point, people who want to go out—if there’s a strike, people who want to go out on strike, go out on strike. There are no fees, under the United Auto Workers [UAW]constitution, for people who do not go out on strike. You might get a little flak from your co-workers, if they’re very pro-union, but there are no fees or penalties for people who decide not to go out on strike, because, frankly, once you settle the strike and get a great contract, you want everybody to be back, and to be happy and successful in their contracts.
DERMOT RYAN: Can I just add one thing to this? What makes NYU so exciting—NYU shows us that it is possible to sit down and bargain with an administration without ever losing a day’s work, and it’s also possible that we can get a really great contract without anybody having to lose a day’s work. So, really, I think it’s becoming very clear that it’s in the administration’s court. We have got a precedent down the road, where you can achieve this stuff without striking.
BEVERLY GAGE: You also asked about sympathy strikes, which I wanted to address. Sympathy strikes, again, are not something that can be sort of called from the outside. If we wanted to go on a sympathy strike, say, if there’s an instance in which the clerical workers on this campus, who are also members of Local 2110, if, for instance, they voted that they were going to go out on strike, and we saw good, strategic reasons to support them in a sympathy strike—they could not call us to go out on a strike, but we could, again, hold a membership meeting and vote about going out on a sympathy strike. One thing to say—and I think this is the case at NYU, Dave can say if I’m wrong—most contracts you bargain over strikes or sympathy strikes, and for the most part, for the life of the contract, you agree not to go on strike, or to go on sympathy strike.
DAVE SHERMAN: Right. The NYU contract actually prohibits sympathy strikes. The union can’t call a sympathy strike.
DERMOT RYAN: That is obviously something that we, as members, will negotiate over; it’s something we will decide.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Can you say a little bit about the governing structure of a local union, that is, who runs it, how are they elected, what power do they have, what’s their relationship to the national UAW, and to other locals on campus, just a general feel of how that works.
BEVERLY GAGE: Dave, do you have a sense of that?
DAVE SHERMAN: Yeah. The local is a fairly autonomous organization. It’s made up a lot of different workplaces, all of which are unionized members. It has a close relationship with the international union (it gets a lot of resources from them), but it’s not bound to them in their own, internal decisions. Locals have their own by-laws that they design and vote on, and each workplace that’s a member of the local also has its own democratic processes to make major decisions, such as the decision to ratify a contract or to strike. So there are different levels of autonomy in a large structure.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: The governing body—how big is it? Does it represent different departments? Is it representational of the bargaining unit, as far as departments or divisions? How does that work? Like small departments—are they underrepresented, or are big departments overrepresented?
DERMOT RYAN: We’re back to the bargaining unit again here, are we?
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: No, the committee, bargaining committee—whoever runs the local union. Those people.
BEVERLY GAGE: Okay. I think there’s a little bit of terminology confusion. We would be our own union, we would be our own bargaining union of TAs. We would be part of a local union, which is Local 2110, which also includes the graduate employees at NYU, the clericals here, the clericals at Barnard—a wide range of people—so there are two separate things. In terms of who would be in charge of the decisions about our contract, about us going out on strike—all of that—that’s all done internally. We vote on it, we ratify it, we make those decisions.
DERMOT RYAN: The bargaining unit.
BEVERLY GAGE: Right.
DERMOT RYAN: The local and the international—one way of thinking about it is it’s sort of like a two-way street. If somebody saw what exciting things were happening at NYU and Columbia—another private university in New York—and they rang the international up, the international would contact the local and say, "These folks are interested in forming a graduate union." Then somebody from the local would go out and talk to them and say, "This is great." That’s the way that works. You go from the international to the local. Now, the local to the international, and this is also interesting, that the local—For example, with the recent Feinstein bill, at the University of California, the graduate unions there contacted the international and said, "Hey, our members, our international student members, are going to be really affected by a clause within this bill. You have got to go and pressure—like, contact your lobbyists in Washington and make sure that this bill, that is going to have a moratorium on all international students, does not get passed. The international can provide resources that way. But on all important issues about our contract, our work conditions, the bargaining unit is entirely autonomous.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Give me the right terminology—a group of representatives from a given bargaining unit—is it a negotiating committee?
DERMOT RYAN: A bargaining committee.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: A bargaining committee.
DERMOT RYAN: Yeah.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: How representative are they of the bargaining unit?
BEVERLY GAGE: Okay.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: By department? By division?
BEVERLY GAGE: Okay. That question we can answer. Okay. The bargaining committee, which is basically—Once we have an election and we have a union here, we will start having to negotiate with the administration, which means that we will elect what’s called a bargaining committee. That bargaining committee is made up of some group of members of the union—TAs. Who exactly would be on that bargaining committee and what size it would be is something that we would determine. We might want to do it by department, you know, have someone from every department on there. We might want to do it by number of students in each department. But that’s something that we would decide internally. I know at NYU they at one point talked about having a ten-person bargaining committee. They had a membership meeting, and people felt that ten was too small, that the smaller departments wouldn’t be represented, so I believe you guys ended up with a twenty-person bargaining committee?
DERMOT RYAN: Yeah. At the beginning, yeah.
BEVERLY GAGE: At the beginning.
MARNI HALL: So do I understand correctly that all the representatives on the bargaining committee would be students, that there would be no external union representatives?
BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well— Maybe you can speak to this better.
DAVE SHERMAN: All the elected bargaining committee members were elected. We were working in very close collaboration with the UAW staff. They have a lot more expertise in negotiations than we do. It would have been impossible to bargain a contract without experience. So we worked with their experience, but we had authority.
MARNI HALL: Could you comment on, after a contract has been agreed upon and a union is in place, what the leadership structure is for the graduate student union? Who are those people, how are they elected, and the composition thereof?
BEVERLY GAGE: Well, again, that’s something we would figure out for ourselves, how exactly we wanted to be run. Some places have a president and a vice president, and those are elected members of the union. Other places just have a body of people, all of whom are somehow equal and part of a council—but that’s something, again, that we would—
MARNI HALL: I guess I don’t mean as much the positions, but who they are, where they come from. Are they all students? Again, this question is, are they all students or are there external people from the union, who are part of the leadership on the campus?
BEVERLY GAGE: In terms of who would be in charge of our union, it’s probably going to work pretty much the way it’s been working thus far. You’ve got a lot of people involved, a lot of graduate students involved, and we draw, as you were saying, off the resources of the local union and the international union for advice, for all sorts of things, but the committee would be made up of ourselves, we would be part of these other structures as well. We would be members of a local union, of which Maida Rosenstein is president, who’s right here.
DAVE SHERMAN: We bargained this in our contract. We decided to have up to thirty stewards we could elect from our bargaining unit—other GAs and TAs we could elect to represent the others. Those are the people who do more of the daily work of the union, and are in charge of enforcing the contract.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Would the bargaining unit change each semester, with people’s appointments as they come in and out of teaching positions? How is that kept track of?
DERMOT RYAN: I imagine it’s going to be the way it has been thus far, when we’ve gone out organizing—basically, you know, people graduate from university eventually, it can happen; they move on, and people stop working—Beverly started before me, and she was working when she started organizing. Now she’s not working. I wasn’t. I was an RA when I started, now I’m a TA. Basically, you know, there’s some turnover, but you’ve got a lot of continuity. The union will only be as strong as its membership and how active people are, and at the moment it is pretty exciting. We’re really growing and we’re getting a lot of new people in. I think most people would say it’s a lot of fun, but there is a turnover. There are turnovers at most workplaces.
JENNY MATHEWS: Okay. I think we need to start wrapping this up. I have a few questions for Dr. Blackmar, who’s sitting silently—thank you, for your patience.
What do you think are the educational implications of unionization, as far as relationship between the mentor and the graduate student, and as far as undergraduates—the overall educational outlook?
PROFESSOR ELIZABETH BLACKMAR: Let me just start by explaining one of the reasons I’m here, which is to, in part, represent faculty. Faculty are divided also on this issue. There is a lot of debate. Some faculty think it’s a good idea, some faculty think it’s not a good idea. But last spring eighty faculty members signed a letter requesting that, basically, the legal process be allowed to run its course, and that the administration deal in good faith with the TAs who are organizing, if it came to a vote, and the majority of the vote were in favor of a union. So I just want to say that a lot of faculty feel that this is a decision that needs to be made by teaching assistants. It’s appropriate for me to have been silent for most of this panel, because this isn’t a faculty decision to make.
I personally think it won’t have any direct effect on teaching. I think faculty have an obligation to try to mentor their TAs, to try to pass on whatever experience they have about teaching. If there’s a union, I don’t see how that’s going to change that obligation on the part of faculty. I also don’t see how it’s going to affect, one way or the other, the relation of teaching assistants to the undergraduates. This is about employment conditions; this isn’t about what goes on in the classroom. So it seems to me that these are quite separate matters. That’s my sense.
JENNY MATHEWS: What about the possibility that there might be strikes? There might be issues of that sort. Would you foresee that interfering with the quality of education?
PROFESSOR BLACKMAR: Not in ways we can’t deal with. In other words, we have unions on this campus. They have engaged in a bargaining process for contracts. Sometimes negotiations break down, sometimes there are strikes. This is an inconvenience, this happens, people deal with it. I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally interfere with the educational process on the campus, and I think the undergraduates understand that. I don’t think this is some great mystery. I do think the faculty who signed the letter last spring—one of the reasons I think a number of faculty—and again, I think these faculty—I can say this, I know—that some of the people who signed, there’s a difference of opinion as to whether a union is a good or bad idea. But I think for some of the faculty there’s a great concern that there was a real breakdown in the community, the community of Yale five years ago, and it was felt that part of that was because there had been a concerted anti-union campaign that tried to recruit faculty in ways that we do not want to see happen at Columbia, and I think doesn’t have to happen at Columbia. It’s important for everybody to realize that this is something we need to guard against, as a community.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: For those of you who maybe have some experience, or have looked at this issue elsewhere, what’s the sense of the way it’s affected faculty-student relations on other campuses that have been unionized?
BEVERLY GAGE: Well, we actually have some real, empirical evidence of how it’s affected faculty-student relationships at other campuses. Recently, a researcher named Gordon Hewitt at Tufts University did a study of how it had affected faculty-student relations. He asked faculty at unionized campuses across the country—of which there are many—what they thought of it. Ninety-two percent of faculty at these institutions said they thought it had either had a positive effect or no effect at all. So I think, overwhelmingly, it’s either positive, or doesn’t really change what are already good relations.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Well, that’s fifty minutes or so. Thank you so very much for answering our questions.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: The second panel, from the closest to furthest from me, are Sarah Shuwairi, from the Department of Psychology; Giovanni Ruffini, from the History Department; Henry Pinkham, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and Professor Joe Connors, from Art History.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: I guess we’ll begin with Dean Pinkham. If you’ll outline for us, to begin with, the University’s position on the issue of graduate teacher unionization.
HENRY PINKHAM: Okay. The first point I want to make is that, as Dean of the Graduate School, my goal is to improve the quality of the Graduate School, and we’re measured on the quality of the Graduate School by the quality of the students. To get the best possible students, I understand, as well as does everyone else in the administration, that we have to be competitive. I think Dermot said this perfectly, when he opened there. He said they have to compete. The University has to compete. I know that. We have to compete and we are going to compete, so I want to say, first of all—I have the same goals as the students you heard before, which is to make the conditions in the Graduate School the best possible for the students. The second thing I want to say is, I really value the service that the TAs do at the University. I know one of the key issues is that a lot of the TAs feel there’s not enough respect given to them for what they do in the classroom. I feel they deserve more respect. I’m very grateful for the work they do. I was grateful when I was in the Mathematics Department, when I was trying to improve the conditions there, and I’m grateful now. There’s a lot of emphasis in the Graduate School right now about improving the conditions.
However, the key point—and I think most of the senior administrators at Columbia share this view—is that the key issue here is that the graduate students are primarily students, they’re not primarily employees. That, to me, is really the fundamental issue. In fact, having a bargaining unit for just the TAs is simply going to split the graduate students. It was said earlier that, "Oh, you know, it’s like another job. It’s like another workplace. There’s some continuity, people graduate, then they leave the bargaining unit." But that’s actually not the reality. The reality, for example, in one of the science departments, is that during the first five years of graduate school, in alternating semesters, you’re a TA and then you’re not a TA. You’re paid off grant one semester, and you’re paid as a TA the second semester. So you move in and out. That whole department is going to move in and out of the bargaining unit every semester—every single person, or a large percentage, let’s say. I don’t think this is the time to go into this in more detail than that, but the University’s position is that we are dealing with students here, and bringing in an outside union to deal with some of the problems we have is not going to help things.
One of the things I should say— Much has been said earlier about the NYU contract, which was bargained for many months. They also are under competitive pressure, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence—I actually knew nothing about the contract or the settlement until yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to look at it very carefully—but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the stipend this year is $15,000, which is our stipend. They’re also under some competitive pressure to do things. It’s not a coincidence that the health benefit moves, I think, next year, to the full individual benefit. That’s what we have at Columbia right now, and if things improve at NYU we will certainly respond. We are already responding to stronger competitive pressure from other schools like Princeton and Harvard. So we want to be able to respond to pressure from the outside, but we want to be able to have the flexibility of doing it on our own.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Can I follow up? On the question of the students’ status in the University, you articulated that one, the University primarily considers student teachers as students. Can you elaborate a little bit on that question? Because one of the issues I’ve heard is that someone who is enrolled in the Ph.D. program does exactly the same function as someone who’s not, and the person who’s not in the Ph.D. program is counted as an employee. The person who is in the Ph.D. program is not counted as one, for doing exactly the same thing. So can you tease that out, that view?
DEAN PINKHAM: Well, yes. When you start in any job—for example—I think one of the examples you might be referring to is the core curriculum, where we very rarely, I should say, in the Graduate School, ever bring in people to do TA jobs. The few exceptions where we might do this—bring in outside people—are people who teach actual classes—not just a recitation section, but classes that meet three or four times a week. The only examples I really know of where this happens is in the core curriculum, in the College, so I’m talking about CC and Lit Hum. So, in fact, there, on occasion, we do bring in people. They’re usually former Lit Hum and CC professors—teachers—who were graduate students here.
Now it’s different, I think, because when they were doing it as graduate students, they were learning the job. They took training courses, they went to meetings every week to learn how to teach it, and then once you get past that, you can do that as an employee. I think that’s the difference. In all situations where you’re learning a job, at the beginning it can be something different than it is later on.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: To follow up on that—I think one of the points we didn’t hear much the first hour but something I heard last year when the union was organizing, had to do with the extent to which many teaching assistants (in fact, Sarah and Giovanni might want to speak to this, as well), many teaching assistants did not feel like their TA-ships were actually instructional, that it varied dramatically from teacher to teacher and from professor to professor, the extent to which they treated their TAs as apprentices versus employees. Could you speak to that, or talk about how that can be addressed?
DEAN PINKHAM: Yes. So one of the things I did this fall—I’m not sure everybody knows this, but I’ve only been Dean of the Graduate School since, I think, June 15. So, for example, when the card signing happened, I wasn’t dean. But one of the things I did this fall was to try to actually find out on the ground what was going on in the departments, and it is true that there are a few departments where, unfortunately, some of the professors do take a very off-hand attitude toward what their TAs are doing. This is something, certainly, I want to correct, but I should say that in dealing with the departments—the Art History Department is certainly a prime example, the Music Department is another example—there’s an incredible amount of attention. So from where I sit there are real pockets where there are problems, and my goal is to correct those problems by devoting more resources in the Graduate School office to these teaching issues. This is something I very, very much want to do. But on the whole, things are pretty reasonable in most of the departments I’ve seen so far.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Giovanni or Sarah, do you have a comment on that?
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Yeah, I do. I think, to some extent, the Dean is right. I think diversity and uniformity is a major issue here. Now, as far as my own teaching experiences here, if I’m TA-ing a survey course for Greek history, and I have a section coming up, I need to go home and figure out who won the Pelopponesian War. And I need to figure out, more importantly, how I’m going to teach that.
So that is an aspect of my growth as an academic, specific to my field. Now, other graduate student instructors and other TAs end up in some pretty random assignments, teaching things they’re probably never going to have to worry about again. Now, they might feel they have a lot less training and benefits in this, so my concern is, okay, I am getting career instruction and academic growth out of this and other people are not, so is the union going to be able to find a way to bridge that gap, to represent both sides and both aspects of that? That sort of potentially forced conformity is a big concern of mine.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Sarah, I don’t know if you want to add something to that, as follow-up.
SARAH SHUWAIRI: I don’t have anything significant to add except that I thought both the TA positions I’ve had this past year were learning experiences, and it’s forced me to learn material that I have to teach, that I have to earn my degree in. So I think it’s been beneficial. I have no complaints.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Speaking of complaints—and this is specifically for Dean Pinkham, although anybody who has anything to say, I’ll gladly hear it— You said, Dr. Pinkham, that you found that some departments, indeed, some professors, perhaps overused, or don’t use their TAs appropriately.
DEAN PINKHAM: I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about a lack of concern on the part of the faculty member for what the TA was doing.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Okay. Let’s say I have an advisor in that situation, who happens also to be my dissertation advisor but whom I feel doesn’t have a concern for my teaching, etc., for the work I do. How would I address that, given the difficulty that this may be my dissertation advisor, who I feel is exploiting my labor, and demanding more of me than—How do I address that?
DEAN PINKHAM: Okay. So it’s not so much that—If I understand the situation, you’re the TA in a course that is taught by your dissertation advisor. And it’s not so much that the dissertation advisor is not paying all that much attention to what you’re doing, but that the dissertation advisor is forcing you to do too much work for the course. Is that what you’re saying?
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Yes. Or not giving me appropriate guidance—or what I feel is not appropriate guidance—on how to perform my duties as a TA for him or her.
DEAN PINKHAM: That’s a very difficult question. If that’s your dissertation advisor, it’s very difficult. I’m certainly willing—and there are people on my staff whose job it is—to hear grievances like this. But I think in any situation—union situation or nonunion situation—that’s difficult to deal with. What’s much easier to deal with are questions of overwork. I mean, I think if in any department, if you go to—some people can correct me at the end of this, if they want, but—I think if you go to the DGS for that department, or then if you go to Margaret Edsall, on my staff, who deals with these kinds of issues—we can try to intervene, and make sure the load is reasonable. In fact, I’ve intervened in three or four departments this fall, to try to regularize situations like that.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: And is there kind of a pool of money or something for excess TAs? I mean, we do have the problem where a class that was expected to only be fifty undergraduates balloons to one hundred.
DEAN PINKHAM: We do have a pool of money, and we do—One of the problems in the past (and the past means, here, three years ago or more) was that there wasn’t clear enough communication between the Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School and the different departments about what they should do in those circumstances. Some of them, I think, assigned classes with too many students to one TA. This year we’re trying very, very hard to get the information from the departments, to make sure that doesn’t happen, and we’ve put in extra money in those cases. One of the problems we’re running into now is not so much a question of extra money, but finding appropriate students, in some cases. For example, this year we’ve had problems in MEALAC. There haven’t been enough TAs. The reasons are pretty clear. There’s been a huge interest at the undergraduate level in the Middle East, because of 9/11. We have many more students than we’ve ever imagined could be possible, and we simply don’t have enough graduate students with the expertise in that area, to cover those classes.
MARNI HALL: Can I ask you to comment on— One of the concerns of the students who want to unionize is that they would need some sort of binding contract, something that guarantees them that their concerns will be met and not promised, and even if there are good faith intentions, that there would be a binding agreement for it to be met—
DEAN PINKHAM: Binding agreement in what area? On stipend? I think when we bring in students we guarantee a stipend.
MARNI HALL: A stipend and any of the issues you just spoke about. About making the level of instruction and mentorship of the TAs more uniform, orthe number of hours people are working—any of those issues.
DEAN PINKHAM: Well, number of hours, I think—to me, this is the easiest one to answer, so I’m going to answer it first. The number of hours is an AAUP [American Association of University Professors] guideline about how many hours graduate students should work. That guideline is twenty hours. I think that’s why it’s in the NYU contract, as was mentioned before. Our goal is certainly to stay within those guidelines. In fact, in many of the guidelines, in many of the surveys I’ve seen of graduate students, most of the TA assignments do not exceed that, and, in fact, are significantly below. We have one problem at Columbia that’s due to, again, the core curriculum—Lit Hum and CC—where there’s a lot more work than twenty hours in the first year, and we’re trying to solve—in fact, we did this last summer and we’re going to do it again this summer—we’re trying to solve that problem by giving summer fellowships to the students who have taught in that course. So that’s one way we deal with the problem. It’s sort of a built-in problem that we have, unless we dismantle the core curriculum at the undergraduate level, which we certainly don’t want to do. Because, not only is it a good course, but it provides fantastic training—difficult training, but fantastic training—for the graduate students who teach in that course. So we have to address that issue in a different way. And now I’ve forgotten— I’ve only addressed one part of a multipart question you asked me.
MARNI HALL: Well, I’m just asking you to speak generally if not specifically about the main concern that students have about the kind of contract that would insure that—
DEAN PINKHAM: Well, a contract (and, once again, we can go to the NYU contract)—you can look at what the NYU contract guarantees. It guarantees a stipend with stipend increases. As was said earlier, we’re bound to compete. We will compete on the stipends. We will compete not only with NYU, but more importantly right now, we’ll compete as much as we can with Harvard and Princeton, whose stipends are much higher now. There has to be a lag in the competition, because we don’t know, because of antitrust rules, we simply don’t know what the stipends are going to be in advance, so sometimes there’s a little bit of a lag. But we will compete on all those issues.
On the health benefits, we have better health benefits right now than were negotiated, for example, in the NYU contract. We not only pay full, individual coverage for all the students, but we pay 50 percent of family coverage, which is not in the NYU contract. Another thing I want to say is, there was a discussion of child care and housing in connection with the NYU contract. There’s essentially nothing about housing in the contract as far as I can see. There’s a little thing saying that NYU will try, in good faith, to try to do something about housing, sometime in the future. The reality right now is that we house a much, much higher percentage of our graduate students than are housed at NYU. Not only that, we not only have good faith intentions, but we have plans, actually, to increase the amount of housing for graduate students right now. Child care, the union—the contract there got $25,000. When we’re talking about the other issues here on the table, we’re talking about millions of dollars in tuition and stipend, and $25,000 is not very much.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Can I, just to perhaps wrap up this issue— You’ve painted a picture of things doing pretty well currently, at the Graduate School, and some reasons why a union might interfere with the situation. Why, then, was it necessary for a lawsuit?
DEAN PINKHAM: There’s no lawsuit. What happened is, and this is the standard procedure, when the students—the pro-union students—collected these cards, they went to the NLRB, they didn’t come to us. The students—as I think was explained earlier—went to the NLRB. At that point, what we wanted (and once again, "we" is a very collective—I wasn’t involved at that point), but what was wanted at that point was a secret ballot, first of all; also, there was a serious negotiation over what the bargaining unit should be. One thing we haven’t discussed right now is the fact that undergraduates are currently proposed in the bargaining unit, that graduate students—that this union is proposing. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but there’s a possibility that the regional director will rule to do that.
Now it was said earlier that various kinds of graduate students don’t really have a community of interest with the people—the TAs. Now you should ask yourself, do these undergraduates have a lesser or greater community of interest? And I think it’s pretty clear—it’s clear to me—that they have a lesser community of interest.
So the key point is, we wanted to bargain over the—we needed to bargain over the composition of what will eventually be the bargaining unit, and we’ll find out very shortly what it is.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: I do understand—or at least my impression is, and correct me if I’m wrong—that part of the challenge to the NLRB was of the question of whether TAs should really count as employees or not.
DEAN PINKHAM: No, no, we’re just bargaining now as—I’m not an expert on the law, and since we have a hearing next week, I will be sure to be briefed by the appropriate people, but this is just the standard NLRB practice, to get to a secret election.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Okay. So there was no—so the University is not claiming to the NLRB that the TAs are not employees. It’s simply claiming that the bargaining unit that the union has proposed is inappropriate, and that a secret ballot must be the way to hold the election.
DEAN PINKHAM: Well, the University certainly would like to argue that point. As I said, that’s the central point—for us, that was the central point that the NLRB held for something like thirty years. It was reversed once. It is now the standing law. But the reality is that the regional director did not allow us to argue that during the hearings.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: —to argue the status of students as employees?
DEAN PINKHAM: Right. She ruled that NYU set a precedent, and that we weren’t able to argue that. So, in effect, the only thing that was argued at the hearing is what should the composition of the bargaining unit be.
Another point—it’s a very important point—that I would like to make is that, initially, the union argued that GRAs on the downtown campus were going to be part of the bargaining unit. Then we argued—I think very successfully—that, in fact, there was a community of interest if we put in the GRAs downtown; there was a community of interest for the GRAs at the Medical Center, at Lamont—because, in fact, there was a tremendous amount of traffic between those campuses, for the GRAs.
What happened at that point is that the union changed its position, and excluded the GRAs. Now that makes—in the sciences, that simply makes no sense whatsoever, because in a lot of the sciences we’re going to have a bargaining unit where the students will be in the bargaining unit for a year and a half, at the beginning of their career, then they’ll be GRAs, and they won’t be in the bargaining unit again. Or, maybe for a semester or another, they’ll be picked up as TAs again, and they’ll have to be in the bargaining unit. So in those departments, they’ll complete split the departments.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Okay. Thank you.
SOFIA BERGER: Moving on to a slightly different subject—and this is leaning more Giovanni and Sarah—could you talk about why you think it’s not a good idea for the graduate students to unionize?
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Sure. I think I had a chance already, briefly, to touch upon the issue of uniformity versus diversity in graduate student life. There are really a very wide variety of graduate student career paths, and an impressive array of things we end up doing with our time here.
Now, we had a chance to hear from the NYU gentleman about the situation there, and how they had in their contract a clause about standardizing working conditions. Now, he said it was a very flexible clause. I think—maybe it was another person on the panel who said it was a very flexible clause—and I think he’s right. I think any clause about working conditions in a contract is going to be very flexible, to the point where it’s probably going to be vague and meaningless. If you take people who are CC, or Lit Hum, or L&R instructors, their lives and their time as teachers here really have very little in common with what I do as a TA, which has a very minor workload. So I think trying to standardize, and put us all in part of the same negotiating body, is not really going to do anybody any good, because it’s going to have to fudge and make up a gray area there, that won’t be able to pull any strength behind it.
Roosevelt’s hypothetical, I think, touched upon a very interesting issue here. When you TA for somebody who is your dissertation advisor—this is getting a little bit too close to home for me, actually—the UAW has tried to walk a very fine line about whether it’s possible to separate academic issues from employment issues, and I think it was Beverly Gage who admitted the fact that, "Well, this is something we’re going to have to work out. We will negotiate precisely what’s what." I say, "Fair enough," but I think there are some things that simply won’t be able to be negotiated away. When the union wants my advisor to do something he doesn’t want to do, it’s only natural it’s going to have an impact on my day-to-day relationship with him. And it seems to me that the best way for me to deal with that—if I’m working too hard, if he has me doing too much xeroxing, or walking his cat, or what have you—I don’t want somebody else stepping in between me and him. I want to be able to go to him and say, "Look, I have this problem. You need to fix it." Adding a third party into that mix strikes me as a very bad idea.
Now the University’s going to be required, I think by law, as I understand it, to only recognize one body it can deal with when it comes to negotiating employment issues. I think that’s going to be a mistake, and it’s going to be bad for student interests, because there already are organizations on campus—I think we’ll have a lot of chances to talk about GSAC, this week and next week. GSAC is only one organization on campus, I think, that has in the past successfully addressed issues that will, in the future, under the UAW, fall under the aegis of employment issues. So what’s going to happen is, these options are going to be cut off. These organizations are going to have to limit their activities, or they’re actually going to have to shut down entirely. It seems to me if you have one option, replacing it with another option doesn’t really do anything. We’ve seen GSAC be effective in the past; losing that option strikes me as a bad idea.
MARNI HALL: Could I just ask you to comment on what, specifically, GSAC has accomplished that you felt addresses the issue of TA-ing and work conditions, as opposed to what was mentioned about the library and things like that.
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Well, I think part of the problem here is that students, in general, have a shorter institutional memory than the University does. GSAC did a lot of its best work and started re-energizing itself before I got here, and we’re talking four, five, six years ago—’96, ’97—and they were very active, giving presentations with administrators, having lots of meetings, and coming to them and saying, "Look, this health care system, the way we have it now isn’t working." A lot of the changes that bring us up to speed now are things that are directly a result of that. I also think that GSAC lobbying on stipends has had a difference. Not everybody agrees with me on that. That’s a point for debate. Does that answer?
SOFIA BERGER: But how responsive do you think the administration has been to GSAC’s attempts at dealing with these issues that the union would want to bring up instead, and do you think they’ve been responsive enough?
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: I think they’ve had to become less responsive, now that the union has been active, because they don’t want to have to deal with two different organizations. So I think everybody’s energies have been diverted in the last year or so, so GSAC hasn’t really had a chance to do a lot of the activities and focus on all these issues the way it has in the past. Now, before that, I think it’s been very effective. But that’s just my own opinion. In a hypothetical about what a future could look like, if you think it hasn’t been effective enough and you’d like to see it become more effective.
Now, I see a lot of blue buttons in the audience tonight, and I wonder what it would be like if all those blue buttons, if those people came forward and said, "I want to put as much energy as I put into the union campaign into GSAC." Granted, that wouldn’t be the most entertaining way to spend your Friday nights, but that’s your union, right there. That would be a lot of energy, a lot of time and a lot of effort that the University would have no choice but to pay attention to.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: [To Dean Pinkham] I know you’ve been on the job for less than a year, but can you reveal—can you explain what the Macagno Plan is, and what is the relationship between the Macagno Plan and this re-energized GSAC that we got in ’96, ’97, or so?
DEAN PINKHAM: I don’t know—the Macagno Plan was something that was simply about decreasing the number of unfunded Ph.D. students at Columbia, raising the stipends, increasing the number of summers that the funded Ph.D. students would get, and bringing in a dissertation year. My understanding—once again, I wasn’t involved, but a lot of the issues that GSAC was involved in are things that the Macagno Plan wasn’t directly concerned with. I think one of the biggest ones was the health benefits, one which still hasn’t reached complete fruition right now. One of the most important problems on my plate is the issue of housing, from a variety of perspectives. I can’t remember who mentioned it—I think it was Dermot, who mentioned earlier that they solved problems with libraries and the gym. They, in fact, pressured the University to renovate and improve the space in 301 Philosophy. There’s a whole range of things.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Changing the line of questioning a little bit—this is kind of a factual question—is teaching a requirement for the Ph.D.?
DEAN PINKHAM: Yes. Teaching has been, for many years, a requirement of the Ph.D. I can’t tell you how clearly and carefully it was enforced in any department except my own. In my department I can tell you that every single student who’s been in the Math Department in the last twenty-five years (that’s as long as I’ve been here) has taught. I, in fact, when I was chair of the Math Department fifteen years ago, set up the teaching program so that when the students were first-year students they’d have a preparation to teaching, and then they started teaching in the second year. This came out at the NLRB hearings: there are a small number of departments where, because of the size of the graduate student population, there wasn’t enough teaching to go around, and there are a few people who got through the system without teaching. But the reality is that teaching is a requirement, and as everybody knows now—because one of the things we’ve done in the last ten years is we’ve drastically reduced the size of the Graduate School, so that very soon every single person who enters the Ph.D. program will be fully funded for five years. That’s one of the goals of the Macagno Plan. Right now the question is not whether every student will have the opportunity to teach, but how we will deal with the teaching that we have.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: Can I just ask Professor Connors: Could you address that issue? You must advise graduate students who do teach. How do you see the relationship between teaching and the scholarship side of the Ph.D.?
PROFESSOR JOSEPH CONNORS: Okay. A little preface, like Professor Blackmar, that I think all the faculty feel that the faculty are not making this decision. I must say, there are very few faculty who want to get up on twenty-four hours’ notice, in front of an overwhelmingly pro-union meeting, and follow the students who the process of unionization has made into, obviously, very dynamic young leaders. So it’s a very difficult job.
But many faculty have complex feelings, and nobody is asking us. So, although this is an uncomfortable situation to be in, nonetheless, it’s the only time anyone has asked me, so I did it.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: As some of you who read Spectator know, we actually asked several of your colleagues.
PROFESSOR CONNORS: Well, in any case, how I see the situation is this: I came to Columbia in 1980, and, putting the sciences aside, I think science students have always been well treated because of the grant structure, obviously. The social sciences and the humanities were not, and it was the kind of situation where—you know, Columbia accepted everybody, gave everybody a chance—big classes, fifty students in our department and so on—but very few funded. The packages for funding were competitive, I think, but very few of them were funded. Therefore, in the second year and the third year, as debts built up, people tried desperately to get little jobs that would pay maybe half tuition or full tuition, but next to nothing as far as salary or stipend, then, eventually, maybe, to become a preceptor, where, at last, they were getting something like the people who came with a package got at the very beginning.
So it was that kind of situation. Then the Macagno Plan, now continued by Gillian Lindt and Dean Henry Pinkham, tries to say, "We’re going to shrink the school. We’ll go to a situation where everybody has a five-year package," and in some cases it would be more (our students are often on seven years of funding), but, in any case, everybody who comes will get a five-year package, will get to that over a transition period that should be over in about two or three years, and of those five years, say ten semesters, four of them will be spent in the classroom and the other six—four of those will be spent doing nothing but your work, the first year and the fourth or fifth year when you’re traveling for your thesis, and two of them will be spent on something relatively light, like grading, working for our computer center, doing our newsletter—something that’s almost basically nominal—to let you do your orals and so on.
Everyone has talked about the high stipends that unions would bring in. Obviously, the better paid a teacher is, the better the teacher will be, and the more caring and so forth. There’s no doubt about that. A higher stipend means a better teacher. I think that’s quite clear. On the other hand, what if a higher stipend meant that nobody had free time? It’s a fragile structure when you can offer somebody six semesters of—four semesters of totally free time, two semesters of light apprenticeship, four semesters of the hard work that teaching is, so they can grow into the fellowship of teaching— What if everything was like what it is, say, for my daughter at MIT (she’s a social science student), where getting a prize fellowship (which is what she had) means that you can be guaranteed to get a section. Every semester you’ll never have to really worry about getting a section to get your stipend, but there’s no such thing as getting a stipend without a section, whereas, at Columbia, there is. And if we go from our present situation, and we add $1,000 to the stipend but we have to go back to the old scrambling, I think that would be a step backwards, and we couldn’t see students develop from the free time to the sort of harder and harder work that teaching is—and when they’re preceptors in our core curriculum—in a funny way it’s the lowest level course, but the highest level of responsibility—they become incredibly independent and good at this. Then they go off for a year of research.
So that fragile structure would become, I think, a structure of, "Well, everybody’s teaching every semester and they have $1,000 more," but I don’t see it as progress.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: So, in a way, the picture you’re painting is one where, in effect, over the course of several years, if you want to argue that the full stipend is compensation for the work that’s done as a TA or as an RA, it’s really four semesters of work at a very high salary and several semesters of subsidy, and it’s just kind of evened out.
PROFESSOR CONNORS: It’s at the same salary.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: I understand. But, in effect, the work that’s done— If we want to consider the money that a student receives from the University is in exchange for labor, the two semesters of TA-ing and the two semesters of RA-ing—you get five years’ worth of stipend for those four semesters of work. And what you’re suggesting is that, in fact, you have to consider this holistically; there’s not only an educational reason to say you can’t separate teaching from being a graduate student, there is, in fact, a financial reason. Is what you’re arguing, am I understanding you?
PROFESSOR CONNORS: Yes, but also, the word "workload" has come up, and twenty [hours] has been fixed by the AAUP and by the unions, and twenty is not a bad idea. The student leader who was here before and made the point that the preparation time should be included is absolutely right, because the two contact hours and the hour one spends with the professor giving the course, or, in the core courses, the two or three hours you spend on pedagogical lessons each week—that only adds up to five or six hours, but obviously it’s the time you spend, this incredible work. All of that is a lot of work, but it’s precisely because it’s education. For instance, in the course that I teach—"The Introduction to Architecture"—if you’re a student of modern architecture and the first week is the pyramids, that’s a hell of a week for you, because you have a lot to learn. On the other hand, last week, where you were dealing with the development of the skyscraper and so on, it’s a piece of cake. So to quantify it, and say, "I should be compensated more during my pyramid week," or—Every hour a young academic spends on preparing a course is absolutely, literally, an hour subtracted from the incredible grind that first-year assistant professorship is. To send someone into a first-year assistant professorship with no teacher training (as I was sent, for instance), is hell on earth. Therefore, Columbia is extremely special in that it builds up young colleagues as really good teachers, and they can walk away from this course with it in their pockets, so to speak. That first year of teaching is so much better for them than it is for our peers.
So, competitive packages, yes, yes, yes, yes, but they walk out of Columbia with far more than competitive skills.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Switching tracks again, I want to pick up what Giovanni suggested: if everybody wearing a blue button were a GSAC activist (what a funny thought), would the University acknowledge—engage in—collective bargaining with internal, democratically elected representatives? Graduate student representatives?
DEAN PINKHAM: Who are you asking?
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Anyone who cares to answer, but I guess Dr. Pinkham is it.
DEAN PINKHAM: I don’t think you’re allowed to call it collective bargaining when you’re—also, I think it would be a violation of labor law for me to actually say I would do that. One of the things you have to understand about the difficulty of the situation I’m in now, as an incoming dean, with lots of plans about how I want to improve the Graduate School in all sorts of ways, is I’m bound, in a number of ways, by the fact that we’re currently in the process of a negotiation, negotiating with the union. For example, even if I wanted to start setting up a more formalized mechanism with GSAC, first of all I couldn’t tell you about it, and second of all, I certainly couldn’t do it. So I can’t really answer that question, in terms of collective bargaining. But if the question is simply do I want to listen to the students of GSAC? Do I want to solve all the problems that come up when I talk to the students in GSAC—and not only the students in GSAC but all the students who come to me, or I’ve met in various departmental meetings—the answer is, of course, yes. I would like— The stronger the body, the stronger GSAC is, the better it is for me as dean of the Graduate School, because one of the things— You know, I’m not at the top of the pyramid of responsibility in the University, and I have to bargain with the people who are above me. If the students, if I have a strong group of students who think that some changes are very, very important, that group of students coming in will help.
So the answer is yes, I think GSAC is a very important body, and I’d like to be able to work more closely with it.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: To follow up on some of those points—and I know it’s something that the graduate students who oppose unionization have brought up—unionizing the graduate teaching assistants does bring in a set of legal frameworks into the University that, again, can be dealt with through lawsuits and through legal means, rather than through negotiations that take place just within the University. I understand that’s a reservation on some of your parts. Perhaps you could explain what those rules are, and why you think they’re dangerous. I know you did some of that just now, but—
DEAN PINKHAM: There are no lawyers up here. It’s difficult to answer that kind of question without legal advice.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: So maybe we’ll save it for next week.
DEAN PINKHAM: Yes. Okay. Can I bring my lawyer?
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Sure. They can consult between them.
JENNY MATHEWS: Okay. Actually, I want to ask Giovanni and Sarah this question. What do you think are the educational implications for the future, as far as if we were to unionize? Do you think it would really have a negative effect between the faculty and the students, and also at the undergraduate level?
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Well, as far as the undergraduates go, I think that would be something that would come to play only in a worst-case scenario, really, if we had to go on strike. I understand that’s only a last resort, but it does happen, and has happened at a number of universities. Now, it’s my personal opinion that if the union went on strike, I would probably feel obliged to continue teaching in any case, and that would probably cause some tension between me and my peers, if none already existed. [Laughter] I’m doing what I can.
As for the graduate students who did go on strike, I think, ideally, the strike wouldn’t last all that long, but if it did, you could envision a situation where undergraduate education is hurt by this. I think that’s probably a worst-case scenario, but it is imaginable, and not something I think we’d want to bring to Columbia. As for other academic relationships, like between me and my advisor and between me and other people I work for, I think there are a number of very complicated scenarios here. My understanding is— We heard earlier that the people at NYU said they didn’t want to deal with academic issues in the bargaining process. My understanding is that it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that, that the NYU bargaining group specifically declined to sign a statement saying they would refuse to deal with academic issues, so they left that door open. I think there are a couple of complications there that could come into play. Now, if you’re a TA, and you have a position as a Lit Hummer or an L&R instructor or what have you, and you are not invited back to the University for academic reasons—your performance toward your degree has not been satisfactory—what happens to your employment status there? You could presumably appeal your employment status on academic grounds, and vice versa, so I don’t see that you can really separate those strands there, and I think that’s a big problem.
JENNY MATHEWS: So you’ll still have a job, even though you fail?
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Well, I wonder. I think some people might imagine themselves being able to work that angle, and I think that’s probably a bad idea.
DEAN PINKHAM: Can I say something, briefly, about that? Because my understanding is that—and, in fact, it’s an appendix to the NYU contract—there was a letter that was signed by, I guess, possibly, someone in the audience, saying that—there are some reservations in the last section of that letter—but, basically, the UAW would not bargain on academic issues. That letter was signed. On the other hand, I also understand that the UAW has said publicly that they wouldn’t do this going forward, at another school. So one of the things we have to think about here is, even though, on the academic issues front, the NYU contract looks, on paper, like it might protect a lot of the things that some of us would like to see protected, there’s absolutely no guarantee, going forward in a new contract, those same things would be preserved. So that’s one thing. When you start bargaining a new contract, do you start from scratch? Okay? So it’s a completely new ballgame. As I said, the UAW has said publicly they will not sign a letter saying that academic issues are off the table, in any other circumstance after NYU.
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: That about completes the fifty minutes. Thank you very, very much. [Applause]
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Each panel will now have an opportunity for a ten-minute closing statement. We’ll begin with the first panel, then the second panel will have the same opportunity.
While we set up, let me just remind everyone of our meeting next week, and solicit questions and concerns that may have emerged from this week’s discussion. The e-mail address where they should be sent—could you remind me of that? DB722. We very much want to hear from you what live issues remain for you, and what questions you would like to see addressed from up here.
So if our first— Looks like Beverly Gage.
ROHIT AGGARWALA: We should just mention that the way this was done was we invited the panel to get together to decide who would speak, and to split it up as they wished.
BEVERLY GAGE: So I’ve been appointed to give our closing statement, and rather than pull everyone up here, I’ll just sit here myself.
There’s been a lot of information thrown around tonight, and hopefully some of it has helped people clarify some of the questions they had. I would just say that if there are people in the audience who still have questions about anything that’s come up, they should feel free to get in touch with GSEU [Graduate Student Employees United] directly, or just, afterwards, to talk to any of the union supporters in the audience. As has been pointed out, you can tell who they are because they’re all wearing those little blue buttons. But I hope this is a continuing conversation.
I would also encourage our union supporters in the audience who want to get involved in doing this—working on the campaign—now is the time to do it. These are crucial weeks ahead, and this is the moment when we can really make it happen.
So, despite all these details that have come up, I just want to return, in closing, to remember that the principles that we’re talking about are really quite simple, and the reasons for unionizing at Columbia, are really quite simple. The unionization effort here began because graduate students had concerns here that they felt were not being addressed by the administration, and in many cases still have not been addressed by the administration. By forming a union we have an opportunity to talk directly with the administration about those concerns, to be sure they will listen to us, and to guarantee that the decisions that affect our working lives will not be made without our consent. I would point out that, just in the context of the discussion that happened beforehand, this is what distinguishes a union from a body like GSAC. Unions can negotiate binding agreements, and more importantly, the decision making power is shared. Decisions about our lives cannot be made without our consent. These are simple principles, there’s a clear and fair legal process which we can follow to make all of this happen, and this is what a union is all about.
Very quickly, though, I would point out that the details also matter. There are broad principles and there are details. A couple of things I just want to respond to, that have come up in the last hour or so— The first is something Dean Pinkham said about the University’s response to our filing of cards. He said he felt it was important that the University do this, in order to insure a secret ballot election as well as to argue about the bargaining unit. The fact of the matter is that we could have had a secret ballot election last semester, had the University been willing to do that. We wanted a secret ballot election last semester; that’s the only kind of election that the National Labor Relations Board supervises. So we could have had that election, and the University decided instead that we ought to go into hearings.
So that’s one thing. I also want to respond to the idea that Dean Pinkham and others presented, that somehow if you learn on your job, then it’s not really a job. [Applause] It seems to me that a lot of people learn on their jobs. Those are jobs that you want, and it doesn’t negate the fact that what you’re doing is still work. So that, as an argument that somehow we are in some other category than employee, to me really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
In terms of whether teaching is a requirement for the Ph.D., Dean Pinkham spoke to his department’s experience. It may be true in Math; in the History Department I know several people who have gone through and gotten their Ph.D. without teaching. So it may be something that’s different across departments, but it certainly can’t be said that teaching is a requirement for your Ph.D., across the board, at Columbia.
I guess the other thing to address—there are so many—is what was presented in terms of the sort of bargaining unit we had proposed. Dean Pinkham mentions that the union had originally filed proposing a bargaining unit that would include TAs as well as some RAs. When we filed that petition, we were following what was the legal precedent at NYU. At NYU it was TAs, and researchers who were working on research that was not part of their own dissertation who were included, and that was the legal definition of who would be included in the unit. At Columbia that was our original petition. We figured that was the law, we would go ahead and follow it. What subsequently happened is that we discovered that many of the RA positions that people were not working on their dissertations were possibly being eliminated, and also that this was, you know, a fairly murky legal question, and it seemed like it would make sense to make a bargaining unit of TAs—teaching assistants who all worked together, who all shared a common interest that had a clear definition to it.
So that’s the process by which that was changed. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get into other issues at the next hearing, but I’ll just move on now. Those were just a couple of things I wanted to address.
On a broader level, I think a lot of the talk from the anti-union side is sort of a tone of "we can’t know what will happen if there’s a union at Columbia." I just don’t think that’s true. I think the NYU contract points out exactly what we can expect if we have a union at Columbia, which is that working conditions for graduate employees will improve dramatically. At Columbia we may not have the same issues they had at NYU; our conditions are different, and we may want to bargain for different things. But the fact of the matter remains that the NYU contract shows that collective bargaining can work, and that when we get together and sort out our priorities, we can make it work for us, too.
I would also say that the NYU contract points out that a graduate contract can benefit all graduate employees, right? NYU had a strategy. They really wanted to bring up the people at the bottom, and I think that’s a real priority for people here at Columbia as well. At the same time, they wanted to make life better for everyone, so raises were negotiated across departments. If you were already being paid fairly well, you none the less got a 3.5 percent raise each year, with a 4 percent raise in the final year of the contract. Every single person covered by this contract at NYU will benefit by it, and I think that’s our goal here at Columbia—to improve conditions across the board, for everyone.
It can also be, I would say, a win-win situation for the University. Another series of concerns that have come up are over the quality of education—how this would affect education at Columbia—and Dean Pinkham has suggested that it may have a negative effect, as well as other members of the panel. I think one of the best testaments to the way in which a union can really improve things across the board in terms of education is what NYU administrators have said in response to the recent contract, and I’m quoting from their press release that was recently issued. They say, "The agreement re-affirms fundamental academic prerogatives at the university. It provides for substantial increases in stipends and health care coverage for graduate students, and it insures NYU’s competitiveness in attracting the highest quality graduate students in the world." That seems to me to be a pretty strong testament from people who have had, now, several years of experience in working with their graduate students, as they form a union. I think it can work that way at Columbia as well. The goal of unionizing is not to create an antagonistic relationship between students and administrators, employees and administrators, students and faculty, students and students. It’s really quite the contrary. A union presents a way to resolve existing disputes in a clear and legal and rational process. And, as the NYU administration acknowledged, by improving the working conditions of graduate instructors, a union can also help to improve the quality of education and of public discourse, I would add, on the university campus.
But the point, frankly, is not to sell anyone on the idea of having a union. A union is not some kind of outside force you hire to bring in and wrangle more money out of the Columbia administration. The union is, quite literally, us, and it is all of us. It’s an opportunity, and it’s not a guarantee. Our union, in short, will be what we make of it, and my experiences over the last year and a half, in going around and working with people on this campus and talking with them, convinces me that, without a doubt, we can make it great. [Applause]
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Thank you, Beverly. We will now hear a similar closing statement from members of our second panel.
GIOVANNI RUFFINI: Are we having fun yet?
Hopefully, we’ll hear a little bit from Dean Pinkham. We divided up the time a little bit, so I’m just going to say a brief word.
It seems to me that the graduate students organizing the union here at Columbia act as if unionizing is a natural, obvious course of action, and they seem to take for granted that a wide array of graduate students share the same set of grievances, and can be represented in a uniform fashion by the same outside organization. They seem to find nothing at all strange in the notion that the United Auto Workers is the organization best qualified, essentially, to take our money, and to stand between us and the administration.
Now, needless to say, I have a hard time with all this. I think the burden of proof should be on the students who support the union, and on the UAW specifically, to show that they deserve to be invited to this campus and into our lives. What has taken place at other universities, where the UAW has organized graduate student unions, shows that they have a very serious burden to overcome in order to convince us. Union supporters say that a union will bring us a student-run democracy, but they cannot explain, for instance, why the UAW deposed the elected graduate student leadership at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and took over the union for itself. Union supporters say that strikes are rare, and that they are a last resort, but strikes throughout the University of California system in the 1990s were long, they were confrontational, and they were dominated by outside UAW strike workers who had little knowledge of or interest in graduate student affairs.
Union supporters paint an idealistic image of graduate student solidarity. They have done this by claiming what I think are unbelievably high percentages of support among the student body, and by dismissing anti-union graduate students as little more than puppets for the administration. Certainly, I think nothing could be further from the truth. I receive e-mails every day from graduate students opposed to unionization for a wide and impressive variety of reasons. Many of us are not opposed to unionization in general, but are concerned about the tactics and the national political activities of the UAW. More importantly, graduate students against unionization are concerned about the possible adverse effects this movement could have on our academic work, on our teaching careers, and our pocketbooks. Graduate students who support the union say that the UAW will be able to improve and to standardize our working conditions. I’m skeptical about both claims. To begin with, there are many of us here who do not have any particular complaint about their working conditions. All of us chose to be here, and many of us are fortunate enough to have financial arrangements that leave us quite comfortable at the end of the year. [Laughter] I don’t eat much. What can I say? And what would it mean to standardize our working conditions? I TA a Roman history survey class. I teach a couple hours a week, and have a period of intense grading maybe twice a semester. Now, other graduate students run entire courses, in which they’re responsible for the planning, the curriculum, and the grading of an entire semester of Lit Hum or CC. I can’t understand what kind of contract is going to standardize these sorts of arrangements, and what set of negotiated demands can possibly speak on behalf of the full range of graduate students without becoming hopelessly vague and generalized.
Finally, the financial aspect. Typically, and I think the exception, we’ve heard tonight, has been the NYU case. Typically, at other universities where the UAW represents graduate students, contracts call for a guaranteed 2 percent increase in salary per year. Yet, in the last two years, since I’ve been here, my salary has already gone up 25 percent, without a union. The pro-union students claim that this increase is due to the threat of a union, a natural enough claim, I think, but a claim that ultimately, I don’t think, fits the chronological facts. Now, my understanding is that GSAC lobbying for a stipend increase began years ago. The corresponding Macagno Plan, which provides for the raises we’ve been receiving, and the considerable raise I understand is already anticipated for this coming year, was drafted and approved before the union’s petition drive on campus had ever begun.
Now what about the guaranteed 2 percent? To begin with, we may never see it. Under Fair Labor Law, legal restrictions make it extremely difficult for the University to give us a raise at all, as long as contract negotiations are taking place. At other universities this process has taken months, sometimes years. A particularly weak UAW contract at the University of California currently provides for raises only if the university can afford it. And, if we do get our 2 percent (in my case that would be $300), most of it, my understanding is, would go right back out the door in the form of membership dues, strike fees, and, frankly, federal taxes we can no longer avoid paying, because the University would now be required to report how much they pay us. [Applause]
When I first wrote in opposition to graduate student unionization in the pages of the Columbia Spectator a year ago, I said I did not consider myself to be an employee of this university. I stand by that statement. My teaching responsibilities are not a job, but a necessary part of my training as an academic. They add value to my career and increase my worth on the job market. This can only be a good thing. As for the legitimate grievances that some of us do have, we have not exhausted our options within the structures that are already available to us. The UAW, it seems to me, has not proven its case and should not yet be a part of our lives. I urge all of you who aren’t already committed, to vote against graduate student unionization. [Applause]
DEAN PINKHAM: How much time is left?
ROOSEVELT MONTAS: Four minutes.
DEAN PINKHAM: Okay. Professor Connors, as you probably know, hasn’t been here the last week, and he was only asked yesterday, and he was gracious enough to take this on. I’m going to cede my time to Professor Connors, who’s going to say a few last words.
PROFESSOR CONNORS: I just have an improvised minute, but, since I presume 99 percent of you are very pro-union, you don’t want to hear any argument—There’s no point in making a long harangue, but you might want to see why a faculty member, who has dealt very cordially with a unionized staff, as chairman of a department where I think they should have been, were, and are unionized—I ran an American academy in Rome where I dealt with some very large Italian unions, and that was entirely appropriate. But why I might have hesitations: I would sum up by saying that the graduate prize fellowship idea for everybody is a very fragile structure. In state universities, graduate education rests on the back of taxpayer pain, but in private universities it rests on the back of undergraduate debt, and I don’t know how much that can go up. On the other hand, the idea that we now have, or are working towards, that for ten years you can be supported in order for you to really go as a scholar, and some of those years—two, in our case—will be spent in the classroom, in a very constructive way, as I think we all admit, on all sides. That is very different from the situation where, if you want the money you teach the course, and I think that would be a regression. The two best departments in my field, Art History, are considered [to be] NYU and Columbia. NYU is extremely distinguished and I never try to knock it, but they are deciding to remain with the old model. They’ll accept fifty graduate students a year (they’ll accept many more to get fifty), and of those almost nobody will be on fellowship. Fellowships will come at the end of the process. Few people will teach, but most will pay through the early years, and then department endowment will pay them in the later years.
Well, Columbia has chosen—it was that way [but] it has chosen to go the entirely opposite route, and it is, I think, progress. I see no one on the union side addressing the whole idea of the fellowship as a very large structure that is different from the employee status that people have for a small part of it. [Applause]
ROOSEVELT MONTÁS: Thank you. I’d like to thank the audience for your participation and for your attention, and want to remind you to do give us further queries and concerns. I would like to again thank our panelists for this really excellent and productive discussion. [Applause]