When Columbia graduate student Longxi Zhao was dismissed from his job as a teaching assistant in the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering, he discovered there was no formal appeals procedure in place. So he turned to Graduate Workers of Columbia University (GWC), the university's nascent graduate student union. On Tuesday, union members accompanied him to the office of Dean Mary Boyce in the School of Engineering where they delivered a petition, signed by 125 students across various departments, for Zhao’s reinstatement.
“Organizers have been working with [Zhao] since March, trying to appeal his termination, trying to connect with the deans. We feel that it's really important to get him some kind of justice,” said Alyssa Greene, a GWC spokesperson and fourth-year doctoral student in German.
The union has been a major source of support for Zhao, who says that his firing was more the result of a personal conflict with his supervisor than any professional failures on his part. Greene sees Zhao’s case as highlighting the need for just-cause protections for graduate workers across the university as well as the other benefits that a union contract would provide.
While, like any conflict, the details of Zhao's case are complex, for Greene it boils down to a simple matter of fairness.
“You’re relying on a problem you have with the university to be fixed by the same university as opposed to a neutral arbitrator,” Greene said. “[It] doesn’t put you in a great position as somebody with grievance."
Union Organizing Drive
Graduate students at the university began organizing a union drive in January 2014, but waited until December to go public with their campaign when they submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to reconsider its 2004 ruling that graduate student assistants—including teachers and researchers—are primarily students and are therefore not guaranteed the right to unionize.
GWC is affiliated with UAW Local 2110, which also represents graduate employees at NYU. Over the past few months, members have gathered close to 2,000 signatures from graduate student workers on campus, out of about nearly 3,000 total teaching and research assistants at the university.
The group has made efforts to publicize many of the challenges that graduate workers face, including spreading Zhao's story. Greene characterized the reaction that many have to it as strong outrage, and added that when people hear the story, they often realize the immediate need for a union in a way that, she says, is difficult from more abstract discussions about potential health care benefits or stipend increases.
But GWC members assert that the issues faced by graduate students, for whom working as teaching assistants or research assistants is often a financial requirement, go beyond this single incident. Many find it difficult to survive on the stipends they receive, which become even more of an issue when dependents are involved, and limited benefits make things like adequate health care and childcare an ongoing worry.
Many have also cited frequently late pay as something that unionization could prevent by including a grievance procedure in the contract.
“[My stipend last semester] was significantly not on time, like two or three months late,” said Olga Brudastova, a civil engineering student. “And I’m paid for the semester, so this is really noticeable.”
According to Greene, the administration has not communicated with the group directly. When the campaign went public in December, the school hired the law firm, Proskauer Rose, to fight the petition, citing the 2004 NLRB decision. In NLRB hearings at Columbia, which started in March and continued until May, the school’s arguments have centered around this ruling.
Greene believes that the group’s presence on campus has helped graduate students change how they think about graduate school and begin to think about the work they do within it as real work.
As for Zhao, he will have to return to his home in China in a little over a week if his situation doesn't change. The group plans to follow up with the Dean Boyce and do as much else as they can before then. Zhou commented, "I hope we can change something. The most ridiculous thing is that I'm not the only case."
Unionization efforts at Columbia can be viewed as a continuation of efforts downtown at NYU, where earlier this year, graduate student workers won a ground-breaking five-year contract following months of negotiations and protests that capped a decade-long struggle.
Greene reflected that it was when NYU students first received voluntary recognition that organizing efforts really began at Columbia. “It’s been a good inspiration for us," she said. "And we hope to have a similarly great contract in the future."