NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University graduate students, who helped lead a nationwide fight over the labor rights of teaching and research assistants on college campuses, began voting Wednesday on whether to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers.
If the yes vote prevails, Columbia would become only the second private university in the U.S. where graduate students are part of a union.
The vote, affecting about 3,000 students at the Ivy League university, was scheduled after the National Labor Relations board ruled in August that graduate student employees at private universities have the right to collective bargaining. It was to take place Wednesday and Thursday.
Union backers say that affiliation with the UAW would give students more control over their working conditions and could lead to higher stipends and better benefits.
"Right now the administration has unilateral decision-making power for what happens to graduate students at this university," Naomi Schwartz, a graduate student in the ecology, evolution and environmental biology department, said after casting her yes vote. "They like to tell us we have a voice, but we don't really have any way to formally influence decisions about our compensation, about our health care, about how grievances are dealt with."
Columbia administrators argue that teaching and research assistants are primarily students, not workers, and that unionization may interfere with their academic experience.
"We are confident that our students will independently weigh the arguments made for and against UAW representation of Columbia's teaching and research assistants, and will judge for themselves whether their diverse educational experiences are well served by bearing the cost of union dues and abiding by a union contract that has replaced our flexible system of academic governance," the university said in a statement.
Provost John H. Coatsworth warned in a letter to students last week that a labor contract would mean "a new group of union representatives will be inserted into the existing conversation between student assistants and the university's faculty and administration, and we will all be governed by a regulatory framework."
Tens of thousands of graduate student workers at public universities across the U.S. are already represented by unions including the UAW and the American Federation of Teachers, but New York University is the only private university in the nation where graduate students have a union contract.
The Aug. 23 NLRB ruling paving the way for the Columbia vote reversed the board's 2004 ruling that graduate students at private universities weren't employees with the right to collective bargaining.
Harvard University graduate students were the first to vote on unionization after the August NLRB ruling, but the results of the Nov. 16-17 election haven't been announced because of ballot challenges.
Some observers wonder whether the NLRB will reverse itself again and halt unionization among graduate students at private universities once Republican President-elect Donald Trump gets a chance to appoint members who may not be friendly to organized labor.
"I would imagine that by the spring we will see a profound change in the board's composition," said William Gould, an emeritus Stanford University law professor and former chairman of the NLRB.
Gould said if Trump appoints Republicans to the NLRB's two vacant seats the Columbia decision likely would be imperiled.
The UAW has represented clerical workers on campuses including the University of Michigan, near its Detroit headquarters, since the 1970s and has about 60,000 members including adjunct faculty, graduate students and support staffers at colleges and universities.
UAW regional director Julie Kushner said the graduate student union activists at Columbia and elsewhere won't give up on their fight for representation.
"At some point these universities have to reevaluate their approach," Kushner said. "They should be looking at the labor movement as an ally."