A first-hand view of Columbia Administrators’ Anti-union campaign

10/21/2016 04:18 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2016

While I have supported unionization from the moment I arrived at Columbia last year, sitting through Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Carlos Alonso’s allegedly neutral town hall in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health recently made it more clear than ever to me why we need collective bargaining at our university.

Though he did not openly say we should vote “no,” Alonso’s agenda was clear from the moment he started speaking. He barraged the audience – graduate students, faculty and postdocs – with an anti-union campaign speech, hoping to raise fears on the part of us graduate students in attendance and to enlist support from faculty in the administration’s campaign against the union at the same time.

Alonso’s speech and answers to questions had the opposite effect--he helped illustrate to the whole room, including faculty, why RAs and TAs need a union. His responses to concerns raised by graduate students were insensitive, lacked knowledge of the day-to-day life of RAs and TAs, and showed clearly that he raises hypothetical “concerns” about unionization with no empirical basis in the union contracts covering RAs and TAs at more than 60 university campuses across the US where collective bargaining has worked well for decades.

I feel compelled to write about this, since the central administration of Columbia – Bollinger, Coatsworth and Alonso – has quietly waged an aggressive campaign against the efforts of research and teaching assistants to form a union. The campus and larger community needs to know what these administrators – and the high-priced lawyers advising them – are doing, and the recent town hall was a great example.

I have to admit that I entered the town hall with skepticism about Dean Alonso, since it became public a couple weeks ago that, in response to a reporter asking if he was available to do an interview on graduate unionization, he wrote back, “Full smirk.” While he subsequently said his “full smirk” comment was intended for someone else, his comments and point of view in the town hall confirmed for me that the administration writ large, including Alonso, are essentially smirking at our campaign.

I will share just a few examples of Alonso’s responses to our concerns we raised at the town hall. I think his responses speak for themselves.

In response to the fact that the administration unilaterally imposed a dramatic increase to health insurance premiums for international RAs and TAs in the Mailman School, costing many of us thousands of dollars out-of-pocket this year, he simply engaged in damage control. “‘Was it communicated in the best way? Probably not.” Never mind the real problem-- that Columbia employs hundreds of RAs and TAs each semester who do not receive paid health benefits.

His response to the rampant problem of Columbia paying hundreds of RAs and TAs late every year exhibited particular insensitivity and lack of awareness. When I told my own story about not getting paid for nine months last year despite performing the work for an RA job, Alonso tried to frame my problem as an anomaly. “It’s very difficult to abstract from one person and generalize it to all graduate students.” When I turned to the audience and asked how many of the graduate students had been paid late, every single graduate student in the room raised their hand. Alonso’s response -- You do not need a union. “You have already a voice. You just have to channel it in a way that makes it effective.” All this after I met personally with Dean Alonso and the Provost about my problem last year and they informed me that it was not their responsibility.

On the University’s failure to provide an adequate alternative dental plan for RAs and TAs when Aetna discontinued the existing plan last year, Alonso evaded taking responsibility. “It was not Columbia’s doing. Aetna informed Columbia in the spring of last year…that they were going to discontinue.” The fact is Columbia could have found a comparable replacement, but failed to do so, something we would have more power to make happen through collective bargaining. More importantly, if Columbia provided paid dental to RAs and TAs, Aetna probably wouldn’t have cancelled the plan due to low enrollment in the first place, because there would have been 3,000 participants.

On how a union could address non-economic workplace rights like protections against sexual harassment, “I am not sure that the [union] grievance process is faster or is more effective.” This shows how far out of touch Alonso is from the reality of life in academia and at Columbia. A chorus of critics have pointed out how Columbia’s existing mechanisms for addressing sexual harassment fall woefully short, and a union grievance procedure with neutral arbitration indisputably establishes added recourse for RAs and TAs. It’s too bad Alonso did not come to the recent forum held by the union on the topic of sexual harassment.

I cannot express how deeply disturbing it is to watch a major Dean on campus spending hours and hours each week trying to stop our union. I do not believe I have ever seen Dean Alonso or the Provost spend so much time touring departments and schools. Administrators certainly have the right to express their opinions, but they could at least be more honest about their agenda.

As one attendee put it toward the end of the town hall, after hearing Alonso ramble on regarding his “concerns” about unionization, “But it is troubling to get an email saying students need to be informed about the potential benefits and drawbacks..and to come to a meeting where there’s nobody who is speaking to the benefits. It’s false advertising.”

Even faculty in attendance weighed in on the critique of Alonso’s bureaucratic insensitivity, in particular, pointing out that the real problem with the massive health insurance premium increase imposed on international RAs and TAs was not communication, which Alonso suggested. “The overarching issue is the unilateralism of the decision,” said one faculty member.

Coming face-to-face with Alonso and his efforts to stop our union makes me look forward more than ever to voting yes for GWC-UAW so that we can have a real voice, through collective bargaining and no longer have to rely on administrators like Alonso telling us “We’re constantly looking for ways in which to make things easier for you, not to screw things up for you.”

Yes, Dean Alonso actually said that. Not exactly a resounding campaign speech. “Full smirk.”

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