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Student Labor Reform and You: Columbia University Students Open a New Frontier





Student Labor Reform and You: Columbia University Students Open a New Frontier

Including a bonus interview with Dean Burns.


Back in August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students (and their corresponding unions) who were working as teachers and research assistants at private universities would officially be employees and thus able to join unions for the first time in a private, higher-level institution.

This essentially allows individual students that have complaints about low or unfair amounts of compensation among other concerns to organize together to improve their conditions. In recent years the amount of union membership across the country has gone down since its early 20th century highs, but this could affect overall membership in the long run, as there are over 500,000 graduate students across the country. In the same week as the ruling, graduate students at the University of Rochester have moved to do the same as Columbia, with the help of local SEIU chapters. However, there is widespread disagreement on both sides of the aisle. While some say that this helps to increase wages and promote a fairer workplace environment, others say this stifles learning and leads the focus away from the classroom and into the courtroom. The interesting thing about this is that the Columbia decision also includes undergraduate teaching assistants under the ruling.
I reached out to Dean Matthew Burns, Dean of Students at the University of Rochester, to hear his thoughts regarding the August ruling.

George: So I wanted to ask would this fall under your jurisdiction, how familiar you are with this, just to sort of start somewhere.

Dean Burns: Well, I suppose it's more of an HR issue than for the Dean of Students but at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, there are a lot of student employees throughout the whole campus and to get the perspective of the Dean of Students would be a different perspective than HR as well... Clearly whatever the law is, I'm interested in making sure we're in compliance with it, that's just everyone's responsibility... As an employee, I guess, I would just be really careful to look at the issue in its entirety and then make my choice after that, and so I would give that advice to any student interested in organizing, 'cause what you're doing there is inviting a third-party in to do negotiating for you right, if you look at the history of labor unions, sometimes that's been really effective and sometimes its been an obstacle... Other than that, I don't think I would take a stance.... My advice is to always keep it down at the lowest possible level, human-to-human...

The message he urged for the remainder of the interview was to take heed and think about this issue from all angles before making any decision to organize on campus. Currently, there are student-involved efforts to help adjunct professors and graduate students unionize, and it will be interesting to see how to issue plays out in the coming months. It is curious to think where and how big or small the trend of student unionization will go, but one thing is for certain: some of us will agree to disagree. Are you currently a TA on campus? Would you consider joining a union? Leave a comment! Attached below is an excerpt from the NLRB website regarding the August 23rd ruling and a poll.