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Graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University went on strike Tuesday over the institution’s refusal to negotiate a contract with their United Auto Workers-affiliated union. Columbia's graduate students voted more than a year ago to unionize, following a major National Labor Relations Board decision in their favor asserting that graduate assistants on private campuses are employees entitled to collective bargaining. The university has legally challenged that decision, however, saying that graduate students are students, not employees. Picket lines are planned through next week.

Olga Brudastova, a teaching assistant in Columbia’s civil engineering and engineering mechanics department, said in a statement, “We work long hours for Columbia, and most of us take home less than $30,000 a year while securing millions in grants and research funding. We want a union because we want real recourse when faced with sexual harassment or assault and progress on issues like late pay, dilapidated lab facilities and benefits. We won a union election with 72 percent of the vote 16 months ago -- and the law is clear. Columbia must bargain with us. As long as they refuse to respect our legal rights, we will take action to take our power back.”

Caroline Adelman, university spokesperson, said via email that Columbia respects “the rights of students to express their views and the rights of all students and faculty to continue their teaching, learning and progress toward degrees.” While Columbia collectively bargains with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of university employees, she said, “we believe that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not ‘employees' under the law.” The NLRB has repeatedly reversed itself on this issue, “depending on the changing political makeup of the board,” Adelman said, and the university does “not understand why the [graduate assistants’ union] prefers the pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, nonpartisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.”