Open Letter to Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University

Eric Dirnbach

Hello Lee Bollinger,

You probably don’t remember me. I’m not certain we ever officially met, though we were in the same room on several occasions. But I remember you very well.

During the 1998–99 academic year, you were President of the University of Michigan (U of M), and I was a graduate student in Biophysics. I was also President of my union, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). That year, the union negotiated with your administration over the wages and working conditions of U of M’s graduate student instructors.

You may recall that we settled a great contract that significantly improved the lives of over 1,500 graduate students. It’s an accomplishment of which all of us, including you, were rightly proud: You described yourself as “delighted with the contract.”

The Michigan Daily, March 15, 1999

I was therefore disturbed to learn that now, as President of Columbia University, you are standing in the way of graduate students’ efforts to organize their union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia.

We both know that graduate students are workers who can organize unions. They perform a tremendous amount of the paid teaching and research work at major universities. This was true at U of M 20 years ago, and it’s true at Columbia today. In fact, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that Columbia’s graduate students are entitled to collective bargaining. Moreover, the students themselves have spoken, with 72% voting in support of the union. That’s a clear mandate, and you should respect it.

Yet here we are. Your own Columbia spokesperson denies that student employees are workers, stating “we believe the academic relationship students have with their faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.”

This statement is simply irrelevant. As the NLRB made clear in its decision,

The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated. Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.

In other words, graduate students can hold multiple roles simultaneously — as students, scholars and workers. That they are students and scholars does not erase their legal rights as workers. This is not complicated or confusing, except for university administrators.

I suspect that you understand this perfectly well. Perhaps the problem is not you, but your bosses — Columbia’s Board of Trustees. The Trustees include quite a few elites from the world of finance. It’s not hard to imagine this crowd ordering you to stall until Trump’s newly appointed, anti-union NLRB possibly reverses course on graduate workers’ rights. Sad!

So I need to ask: What do you and your bosses stand to gain by thwarting the graduate workers’ union? Is this about the money? The material demands of graduate students are fairly modest. If the Trustees are looking for savings, the big money is elsewhere. For example, you are among the highest paid university presidents, with a reported $2.5 million annual salary, plus free housing in a 17,000 square foot mansion. And there’s all the other exorbitant top salaries at Columbia, for example, your 10 other highest compensated employees were paid an average of $3 million each.

So perhaps this is less about money than about power and who wields it on campus. A few years ago, you described graduate students’ status on campus as “different” and “beyond” that of workers:

I think we feel a responsibility for students beyond what it means to be an employee…I think universities are special places in that sense of having a relationship with students that is different from the employer-employee relationship, and it’s built around this scholarly temperament…

Unfortunately, this “special” kind of relationship also gives the administration and faculty a lot of unaccountable power over graduate students’ lives. For example, several Columbia graduate students have recently described serious problems with their working conditions, including late paychecks and arbitrary terminations. A union would help them address such grievances.

You should support the union. You yourself have called for more campus activism in the past. I remember back in 1997, the New York Times quoted you lamenting that, on college campuses, “social idealism is dead or dormant.” This caused quite a stir at U of M: Student activists objected that you were ignoring all their great work. Lots of activism was taking place right under your nose and the same is true today. Perhaps it just isn’t the activism that suits you or your bosses.

In the end, my point is this: You accepted the existence of the graduate union at U of M, and together we negotiated a great contract. Now you are betraying your own history by opposing the graduate union at Columbia. Sure, U of M is a public school and Columbia is private, but the graduate students perform the same essential work at both. And student workers’ rights are protected at both, albeit by different labor laws. Your opposition to the Columbia union is simply an indefensible double standard. Your terrible anti-union website attempts to address this comparison to state schools, but your argument boils down to this: Columbia is special, trust us, and if you don’t like it you can always leave. That’s not good enough.

Columbia’s graduate students want and deserve a union and a fair contract. And Lee, you’re the one standing in their way.

Eric Dirnbach

Written by

Labor Movement Researcher, Activist, Campaigner, Organizer, Educator, Writer & Socialist, based in New York City. @EricDirnbach

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