The Graduate Workers of Columbia on Friday told Columbia University that a majority of teaching assistants and research assistants have signed cards asking that the United Auto Workers local be recognized as a union. A statement from the union noted that if the university does not voluntarily agree to collective bargaining, the UAW could ask the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election and (assuming a majority of the graduate students back the UAW) certify the union. A Columbia spokesman said that the university was not commenting on the UAW request.
In 2004, the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants could not unionize at private universities. (State laws, which vary, govern the unionization of T.A.s at public universities, and many such unions have existed for a long time.) Supporters of graduate student unions have been looking for a test case -- particularly with an NLRB that is more friendly to unions than the board was in 2004 -- to reverse that ruling. A UAW unit at New York University was headed toward being the test case, but NYU agreed last year to a union election, and the case was withdrawn.