Labor tensions are on the rise at private colleges this spring.
Teaching assistants at Columbia and Yale Universities, frustrated that the institutions will not recognize them, voted to strike all of next week. Organizers hope that by striking together, they will attract more attention and support. At Emerson College, several hundred students walked out of classes Wednesday and Thursday to back the faculty union, which has been trying to negotiate a new contract for 18 months.
The graduate students at Columbia and Yale have been pushing to unionize for many years. While such unions are common at many public universities, private institutions successfully fought them off until 2002, when New York University recognized one.
NYU was prompted by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that said graduate students could form unions. But last year, the NLRB reversed itself and said that private institutions did not have to recognize the unions. The NLRB didn't outlaw the unions, and private colleges can voluntarily recognize them, which is what labor organizers want to happen.
Maida Rosenstein, president of the United Auto Workers chapter  that includes T.A.'s at both Columbia and NYU, said teaching assistants need better salaries, benefits and due process rights. She also noted that a majority of teaching assistants have signed union cards, indicating a depth of support that merits recognition -- regardless of what the NLRB says.
By coordinating Columbia's strike with one at Yale, she said, "We want to show that while these Ivy League institutions purport to be dedicated to the loftiest of ideals, two very rich, powerful, wealthy
institutions have a secret underside and that is the way they treat their own workers."
Rosenstein said that many professors have pledged to move classes off campus so that students will not have to cross picket lines.
Alissa Kaplan Michaels, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said that the university's top priority would be to have "minimal disruption" and to help undergraduates whose courses may not be able to meet. She said that teaching assistants are "valued members of our community and we continually seek ways to understand their concerns."
Michaels indicated that the university has no interest in recognizing a T.A. union. "The university's
relationship with graduate students is educational and collaborative. It is not an employer-employee relationship," she said, adding that "teaching is an integral part of the training of men and women preparing for academic careers."
At Emerson, a key part of the debate also centers on the right to unionize at private colleges. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case involving Yeshiva University that faculty members at private colleges had too much managerial authority to engage in collective bargaining. After the Yeshiva ruling, a number of private colleges moved to decertify faculty unions, but Emerson continued to negotiate with its faculty union -- until 18 months ago.
Robert W. Colby, secretary of the faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, said that the only proposal that the administration has made in the last 18 months is that a contract deal only with salaries and benefits -- and remove all other references to faculty roles and rights. "Clearly this is an attempt to get rid of the union," he said.
Several hundred students organized the class boycotts Wednesday and Thursday and organized rallies to denounce administrators. Michael Ribar, a senior and one of the organizers of the protest, said, "The administration won't talk to us or to the faculty members. It's totally closed off."
Emerson officials said that the protests had minimal impact. David Rosen, vice president for public affairs, said that relatively few students skipped classes. He also said that the protests would have "no impact on the contract negotiations."
While most of the labor tensions in higher education this week were at private institutions, there was also activity on the public side. Graduate students at the University of Minnesota have been voting all week on a union drive. Results are expected Monday.