Campus workers organize as Janus decision nears

Graduate students on local college campuses continue to organize and fight for better wages and work conditions. In Washington, D.C., however, the U.S. Supreme Court is closer to making a decision that could affect union labor around the country.

Monday, Columbia grad workers held an informational picket at the medical campus in Washington Heights. The workers have previously discussed dilapidated lab conditions, lack of protections against sexual harassment and lack of health benefits as their reasons for organizing; they are waiting for the administration to come to the bargaining table.

“Our strike made clear that support for the union continues to grow,” said Tania Bhattacharyya, a sixth-year doctoral candidate, in a statement. “Columbia is increasingly alone in its decision to ignore the outcome of our election and the law, which unequivocally gives us the right to form a union and bargain. It’s time for Columbia to join Harvard, NYU, Cornell, The New School, American University, Brandeis University, Tufts University and other private universities that have agreed to bargain with graduate workers after they have won a union election.”

In April, more than 1,500 Columbia grad workers went on strike on campus. Aspiring and current elected leaders such as Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, Congressman Jerry Nadler and New York State Gubernatorial Candidate Cynthia Nixon lent their support to the striking grad workers. In a show of solidarity, faculty members held more than 100 classes off campus.

But labor union leaders and members continue to wait for the results of the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Mark Janus is legally challenging being forced to pay union dues for public-sector unions under the belief that it violates his First Amendment rights. His case is being bankrolled by organizations such as the National Right to Work Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center.

Last winter, the National Labor Relations Board certified the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW as a union for graduate research and teaching assistants, but the administration still hasn’t come to the bargaining table, hoping to wait out the Janus v. AFSCME decision. Recently, members of the New York City Council sent a letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger asking him to bargain with grad workers.

But that hasn’t stopped another group of student employees from fighting for better wages, benefits, tuition and fee waivers and work conditions.

Student workers represented by Student Employees at The New School–United Auto Workers went on strike recently. They’ve been bargaining for their first contract with administrators from The New School since last August with negotiations continuing throughout the strike.

Robert Cremins, a SENS-UAW member, said that his peers have reached their wits’ end.

“As student workers, we are in a unique position: very few of us receive significant tuition assistance, only a handful receive academic stipends and none of us receive health care benefits,” Cremins said in a statement. “We have been bargaining with the university for more than nine months—and it took them more than four months to provide us with a half-page economic proposal. Every month that they delay is a loss for our members, and we have had enough.”

SENS-UAW was formed during the fall 2014 semester by academic student workers. In 2017, with the blessing of the NLRB, they voted to organize.