This past Monday, April 30, marked the conclusion of a weeklong strike conducted by Columbia graduate students at the University’s campus. Timing, as people say, is sometimes everything – especially in an ongoing labor dispute – and here these graduate students scheduled a strike for the last – and busiest – week of the semester.
As such, the strike was expected to be problematic for both professors who rely on graduate students to teach classes, perform research, and grade papers and exams, and for undergraduate students who attend these classes and anticipate receiving grades in a timely fashion. Indeed, there is no denying that the strike was at least somewhat disruptive as reports indicated that several hundred students and professors either moved classes off campus or cancelled them altogether. This, coupled with the fact that the turnout for the strike was greater than expected, is something the union likely considers a victory (in addition to the outside support received from the likes of President of Ireland Michael Higgins, U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Sex and the City alumna turned NY gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon). In fact, according to an article by the Columbia Daily Spectator (the weekly student newspaper of the University), union organizers and graduate student leaders have already pledged to strike again at some point in the next academic year and have even discussed public demonstrations during graduation ceremonies.
Still, the University did not blink and it proceeded with business as usual over the course of the weeklong strike. However, as explained in a prior blog post by my colleagues, the University is still currently waiting – and likely hoping – for the graduate students’ union (Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Automobile Workers) to file unfair labor practice charges against it for refusing to bargain over an initial contract. This would then start a litigation and appeals process before the Board and federal court of appeals on the issue of whether graduate students are statutory employees under the Act and, perhaps, even lead to a Supreme Court decision that would settle this matter for the last time. But, doing all of this takes a lot of time and money and that, as well as the fear of an adverse decision, are likely to blame for the union’s failure to file any ULP charges.
Moving forward, unless the University changes its tune and decides to start bargaining with the union (which, at this point, there is a better chance of the Jets winning the Super Bowl!), do not be surprised if similar actions are undertaken by these graduate students down the road. All of this, however, may end up being inconsequential if the proper case comes before this Republican-controlled NLRB and the 2016 Columbia University Board decision that started this mess is overturned. But, with more and more graduate student unions across the country withdrawing their petitions in order to avoid becoming such a vehicle for overturning precedent, it is unclear exactly when this will happen.
Nevertheless, good things do come to those who wait, and ultimately I believe Columbia University – along with the several other private institutions across the country refusing to bargain with their respective graduate student unions – will see the fruits of their labor rewarded when this Board reverses course once again and finds that graduate students are not employees under the Act. Stay tuned.
Carlos A. Torrejon is a former NLRB Attorney and an associate in the firm’s Labor and Employment Department, resident in its Morristown office.