Why are Columbia Grad Workers Voting on Joining the UAW?

12/07/2016 04:59 pm ET

After two and a half years of organizing on campus and as we start our historic National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, some people still ask why research and teaching assistants have been working with the United Auto Workers (UAW) to form our union. The short answer, UAW also stands for “Uniting Academic Workers.” For a longer answer, keep reading.


The UAW now represents more than 60,000 academic workers and has been in the forefront of graduate unions, going back to organizing in the 1980s at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Massachusetts. Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW), our union, joins good company with 35,000 UAW research and teaching assistants at NYU, University of Connecticut (UConn), University of Massachusetts (UMass), University of Washington (UW), University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU). UAW also represents thousands of postdocs and adjunct faculty at places like UC, Barnard College, and UMass.

By working with the UAW, graduate workers have made progress in primarily two ways: by bargaining strong contracts that have broken new ground and helped raise standards nationally; and by providing a political voice on issues that matter to graduate workers and other academic workers.

UAW Grad Employees Have Negotiated Strong Contracts with Robust Participation

By drawing on the UAW’s decades of negotiating experience, broad access to resources, and thorough understanding of the problems facing academic workplaces, graduate workers have made significant progress in winning improvements to pay and benefits as well as establishing a more equitable workplace.

Over the years, RAs and TAs working with the UAW have won significant improvements to stipends, tuition and fee waivers, health benefits, and basic workplace rights and protections. In many cases, these victories have helped raise standards nationally. For example, when UAW graduate workers at NYU negotiated a 38 percent increase to minimum stipends in the early 2000s, Columbia as well as other universities immediately also announced major improvements to stipends and the NYU administration agreed in its press release that the contract “insures NYU’s competitiveness in attracting the highest quality graduate students in the world.”

UAW graduate employees have also effectively taken on major social justice issues on campuses, such as gender equity. Recent surveys show that large numbers of women experience sexual harassment in graduate school, yet only one in ten actually reports it. The lack of effective recourse for this problem is one of many significant barriers to women pursuing and establishing long term academic careers. UAW graduate worker unions, like the one at the University Connecticut, have negotiated strong contractual protections against sexual harassment and used the union grievance procedure effectively to show that unions can take on this problem and win.

In helping graduate workers win these economic and social justice gains, the UAW also has a long tradition of fostering active democratic participation in both organizing drives as well the contract campaigns that have secured many of these bargaining victories.

Senator Bernie Sanders met with RAs and TAs from Columbia earlier this fall and just this week wrote to us highlighting the years of successful collaboration between graduate works and the UAW: “It is my hope that you will join the more than 35,000 UAW RAs and TAs across the country who collectively bargain for higher pay, more robust benefits, and greater workplace rights.”

Gaining a stronger political voice through the UAW

By joining the UAW, graduate workers also build on a long history of UAW advocacy on issues that matter to members and help build a more just society.

Meeting with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Meeting with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Advocating for Science through the UAW: The UAW has become possibly the only union in the US with a formal position advocating for federal funding of basic science research at our universities. At Columbia, we have already used our local organization to launch efforts to mobilize support for revitalized federal investment in STEM research funding, which not only drew together graduate students and other academic at Columbia but also engaged numerous professional societies to speak out on this important issue for RAs and postdocs. Our work at Columbia drew inspiration from previous work by UAW academics. A few years ago, the University of California postdocs union and the University of Washington graduate worker union, in conjunction with the UAW nationally, launched a major “Save Science Funding” campaign, which involved emails and meetings with Congressional representatives in WA and CA, leading to a letter spearheaded by US Representatives George Miller (CA) and Jim McDermott (WA) urging Congressional leadership to preserve funding for research. We look forward to doing more of this kind of work at Columbia.

The UAW as an ally for international academic workers’ rights: For many years, the UAW has actively supported “opportunities for an expanded pathway to citizenship for international academic workers in the US and their families.”

More specifically, the UAW and many local unions, as well as other organizations, advocated successfully last year to strengthen and expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, one of the few existing options for international students to work in the US after graduation. The UAW also continues to advocate for “unlimited employment-based green cards” for international graduates of US universities.

For all these reasons and more, those of us who plan on voting yes for GWC-UAW look forward to joining 60,000 of our colleagues in an organization that will strengthen our ability to improve our own lives and to make our university more just and inclusive in the process.

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