Graduate Student Employees United

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Grad students form a picket line (here, more like a circle) in their police-designated corral along Broadway, 2004

Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU) was an organization active on campus in the early 2000s dedicated to unionizing graduate assistants and teaching assistants at Columbia.  The group hoped to secure greater benefits for graduate students through collective bargaining. Though the group was ultimately unsuccessful as a result of shifts in the national political landscape, it left its mark on campus through two large strikes in spring 2004 and 2005

Contents

Background

In the spring of 2000, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) granted a petition by NYU graduate students seeking recognition as employees entitled to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The students argued that as teaching assistants, their relationship with the University was more like that of an employee than a student. The NYU decision, issued by the board in the final year of the Democrat Clinton administration, served as the basis for unionization drives at a number of universities, including Columbia. 

At the same time, Columbia's graduate students were agitating for increases in their stipends and benefits, arguing that the University was not paying them enough to live in in NYC.

Employee Status Debate

The substance of the debate over graduate student unionization hinged on whether graduate students were employees of the university or whether they were students. The students argued for the former interpretation, the university for the latter. The university claimed that, as academic students, the members of the GSEU were not "employees" for purposes of organizing under the NLRA. The GSEU claimed that long hours spent teaching were tantamount to employment. A side argument revolved around the stipend paid grad students in general; while the university claimed it paid a stipend equal to those received by grad students at other Ivy League universities, the GSEU claimed that this was not enough to live off of in New York City.

Organizing Activity and Election at Columbia

GSEU was founded in the fall of 2000 and began an organizing drive. In March 2001, GSEU requested the NLRB to authorize a representation election. In response, the University retained labor counsel and challenged the election. After nearly a year of deliberations, an NLRB regional director approved GSEU's request, allowing TA's and Research Assistants across the University to organize as a single bargaining unit in February 2002. 

In March, the University appealed the decision to a full panel of  NLRB commissioners in Washington DC, while balloting was held over three days in mid-March among the 1,800 eligible students. Organizers estimated near 80% turnout. However, the ballot boxes were impounded and locked pending determination of the University's appeal. Other Universities appealing recognition certifications of their own graduate students similarly impound ballots, including Brown and UPenn. 

On April 29, 2002, GSEU held a strike to protest the administration's decision to appeal. GSEU also demonstrates at President Bollinger's inauguration in October 2002.

In the spring of 2004, GSEU attempted to make its case to the administration by having TAs and RAs sign union authorization cards, i.e. a "card check" ballot. Then-state senator David Paterson (CC '77) counted the cards and certified that a majority of the would-be bargaining unit supported unionization in a letter to the University. 

When the University failed to respond to this new maneuver, GSEU membership voted to undertake a full strike, which lasted 4 weeks from April 19 into the final exam period.

In July 2004, the NLRB commissioners vote to overturn their 2000 NYU decision, holding that graduate students were not entitled to organize under the NLRA.

While the NLRB's ruling meant that GSEU was not entitled by force of law to organize as a union, the University could still voluntarily recognize a graduate student union for bargaining purposes.

In December 2004, GSEU held yet another card check ballot, submitting the results to then state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer for certification. 

However, with no signs of progress, the GSEU organized yet another strike in the spring of 2005.

The strikes

In the course of its organizing activity on Columbia's campus, GSEU undertook a number of demonstrations. However, far and away the most memorable and impactful of these were the graduate student walkouts in the successive springs of 2004 and 2005.

2004 GSEU Strike

Grad student strikers rally at the intersection of 116th and Claremont Avenue, 2005

Following the University's decision to ignore GSEU's 'card check' ballot in March 2004 during the pendency of the University's appeal of the NLRB's recognition of the Columnia graduate students as an eligible bargaining unit, GSEU members voted to strike. 

On April 19, 2004, hundreds of graduate students walked out and formed a picket line on  Broadway. Inspired by an overdeveloped sense of activism, supportive undergraduate students staged a sympathy walkout on April 21. 

After 4 weeks of strikes, Sen. Paterson and then-speaker of the City Council, Gifford Miller, mediate a cessation of the strike before Commencement in return for the administration agreeing to meet with GSEU leadership to discuss recognition.

The strike had a wide ranging impact, but one that was especially felt among Columbia College underclassmen, as core curriculum classes were adversely affected by the walkout of a significant number of instructors. Notably, Lit Hum students were no longer responsible for "To the Lighthouse" for their final, and freshmen taking University Writing did not have to write a final essay. Similarly, Professors teaching lecture courses with TA assistance faced the daunting task of grading exams and final papers for hundreds of students on their own. Some professors were game and promised to grade all materials on their own, while others simply cancelled final exams and re-weighted course requirements accordingly. 

The strike also put graduate student instructors in awkward position, torn between supporting and standing in solidarity with their fellow grad students, and abandoning their teaching duties. Graduate students developed various strategies to avoid crossing the picket lines, including teaching their classes off-campus, or even across the street at Barnard College. Other TAs took more symbolic steps, like teaching outdoors rather than in campus buildings. 

2005 GSEU Strike

Grad students rally on the steps of Earl Hall, 2005

 The 2005 demonstration was particularly rancorous; grad students were joined by sympathizers from both NYU and Yale, and large rallies took over several streets in Morningside Heights


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