Columbia Union Hearings Commence

NEW YORK — Two years ago, Rhonda Gottlieb, National Labor Relations Board hearings officer, could have heard the same lawyers as she did Thursday in the Federal Plaza building presenting the same issue as they did then — whether teaching and research assistants have the right to unionize at a private university. The only difference was that this time the university challenging that right is Columbia University, not New York University.

Hearings began Thursday between the University and United Auto Workers Local 2110, which is affiliated with Graduate Student Employees United at Columbia. The hearings will ultimately determine if there will be a union representation election at Columbia, a vote that could certify a union of teaching and research assistants.

Columbia is represented by lawyers from Proskauer Rose LLP, which has an anti-union reputation and represented throughout its 43 days of hearings. The UAW is represented by the lawyers from Levy, Ratner and Behroozi, P.C., which represented UAW in the NYU case as well.

In a departure from the NYU case, the UAW is planning to argue that undergraduate teaching and research assistants should be included in the union at Columbia, and as such would be eligible to vote in an election.

But there are many similarities between the NYU and Columbia hearings, most of which are not limited to the universities’ choices of outside legal counsel. Yesterday’s proceedings demonstrated that the precedent set by the case at NYU, which recently became the first private university to grant graduate student union recognition, will heavily influence both counsels’ legal arguments on the question of whether graduate students can be deemed employees under Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act.

Columbia maintains that its case is different from the NYU case in the hope that the NLRB will reverse the regional director’s decision, and subsequent failed appeal, that mandated an election at NYU.

“”We are fully cognizant of the NYU case. . . Our position is that the NYU decision is not applicable here,”” said Edward Brill, a Proskauer Rose attorney representing the University at Thursday’s hearings. “”Columbia is not NYU.””

The UAW maintains that the board’s decision to recognize the employee status of teaching and research assistants at NYU should be upheld with respect to Columbia’s undergraduate and graduate TAs and research assistants.

Owing to the large impact that the NYU ruling will have upon the Columbia hearings, any differences between teaching and research assistants at NYU and Columbia could be potentially significant. Two issues that could prove important are the level of funding that each school gives to its graduate students, and the teaching requirements those graduates face at each school.

The university will contest the claim that undergraduate TAs can be grouped with their graduate student counterparts, according to Patricia Catapano, Columbia’s associate general counsel.

“”The NLRB did not rule on that [in the NYU decision] because at NYU the [undergraduates] weren’t part of the bargaining unit,”” she said. “”The university’s position is that undergraduates are very different from the graduates.””

The university will try to show, in what is commonly called the “”educational relatedness”” argument, that teaching duties the assistants perform are directly related to the education they receive as students; therefore no distinction can be made between an assistant’s role as student or the assistant’s role as teacher.

Interim Dean of the Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences Gillian Lindt said graduate students are not employees of the university because the teaching they do is a part of their education and training.

“”Graduate students are primarily students in that they are training to become faculty members,”” she said.

UAW’s counsel, on the other hand, will try to show that TAs and research assistants are employees because they fall under two broad criteria that the NLRA uses to define employees, according to Julie Kushner, a sub-regional director for UAW.

The first is that employees provide a service to the employer and are compensated for that service. The other stipulation is that the service they perform is under the control and direction of the employer.

David Carpio, a graduate student in the biological sciences and GSEU member, said the nature of the work that TAs and research assistants perform is not at issue.

“”The nature of the work does not determine if one is an employee or not,”” he said.

Carpio referred to a statement that Gottlieb made on the topic. “”I thought it was very important that the hearing officer came out and said upfront [that] to argue the definition of what an employee is, you’re going to have to stick with the legal definition.””

Kushner is confident the UAW will be able to demonstrate that Columbia graduate students are employees.

“”In this case,”” she said, “”there’s lots of evidence in the documentation that supports the employee status.””

The scope of the bargaining unit is also a subject of contention. The UAW is not including the majority of TAs and research assistants at the Health Sciences Campus uptown and those in the Medical, Dental, Nursing, and Public Health schools and Lamont-Nevis laboratories.

Brill of Proskauer Rose argued that, if the right to unionize is granted by the NLRB, the bargaining unit should include all graduate students who are TAs and research assistants, including those in the excluded schools.

Dan Ratner, representing UAW, said some graduate students in the different schools do not have the same “”community of interest”” that GSAS students at Morningside do, and should therefore not be included in a union.

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