The Full Email From Columbia University Rejecting Its Grad Students' Union, Annotated

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Because they are overworked and underpaid, the graduate student workers at Columbia University—like many others across America—formed a union. Today, Columbia University formally told them to go straight to hell.


Grad student employees and adjunct professors, the lowest-paid work forces in academia, are some of the most active fields for union organizing in America, probably because they tend to be educated enough to understand exactly how they are getting screwed by the enormously rich institutions that employ them for, often, poverty wages. It may or may not be shocking to you to learn that many of our nation’s most prestigious liberal arts universities have sought for any way to break these unions. Now, the universities have a way: the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board, which has now passed into Republican control, and which may very well roll back the earlier decision that allowed grad students to unionize in the first place.

Under the general understanding of “good faith,” a school should sit down and bargain with any of its employees once their union is certified—which the Columbia grad students were in December. But since these fine liberal schools now see the prospect of being rescued by an eventual rule change from the Trump administration, some of them figure they can just wait these unions out. Today, Columbia formally informed its grad student workers of their decision to do just that. Here is the full text, with useful plain English translations included.

Date: Tuesday, January 30, 2018 at 2:40 PM

Subject: Status of student assistants under federal law

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

The effort by the United Auto Workers to unionize graduate and undergraduate students who serve as teaching and research assistants elicits strong views in and outside our community for understandable reasons. At stake, from the perspective of those seeking to establish a union, are promises of higher compensation and improved benefits. Others among us are deeply concerned about what it means to have an outside party involved in what are ultimately academic and intellectual judgments by faculty members.

Though we are aware that a union actually consists of you, the graduate students, and not any imaginary ‘outside party,’ we find this to be a plausible straw man to use to confuse this issue. We fear the union will cost us money.

We are announcing today our decision not to engage in bargaining with union representatives and to seek review of the status of student assistants by a federal appellate court. We recognize the potential, indeed the likelihood, for disappointment and dispute in our community. Needless to say, we have not come to this decision lightly. Because of the principles at stake—principles essential to the University’s mission of training scholars—we have declined to bargain until the legal process has been allowed to run its course.

The principle at stake is our ability to pay you poorly and dictate all aspects of your academic career.

We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment. It is a conviction that, in the end, made this admittedly difficult decision straightforward for us. While the National Labor Relations Board’s position on student assistants has shifted repeatedly with changes in political administrations, the University’s view has remained constant, as has our well-established record of collective bargaining with the several unions that appropriately represent thousands of Columbia employees.


Bargaining with unionized janitors does not threaten the fundamental Columbia University business model. But it is crucial that we own the graduate students.

Our concern for these principles and for safeguarding the University’s mission exists alongside our acknowledgment of the concerns students have expressed during the period of union organizing. This is why we have been working productively with the Graduate Student Advisory Council, the Engineering Graduate Student Council, and other student government bodies to address stipend and quality of life issues, and why we will continue to do so. Indeed, within a short time, the University will be announcing a series of new enhancements for graduate students.

In past communications to you about unionization, I have said that we are determined to improve the experience of research and teaching assistants at Columbia because we want to continue to attract the very best graduate students in the world. Our current research and teaching assistants belong to that group of world-class students and future scholars. We have made a lasting commitment to your future, want you to thrive intellectually and personally while you are here, and, therefore, are deeply invested in addressing your concerns.


But not too invested. Haha.

I look forward to continuing to work with you—and for you—in pursuit of these goals.

John H. Coatsworth

When it comes to labor rights, we at Columbia University are formally allies of the Trump administration. Suck it.