Graduate Student Instructors join C-Fac to bargain for better working conditions

By Tessa Brubaker, News Editor

Patrick Casey
Graduate Student Instructors join C-Fac to bargain for better working conditions

Graduate Student Instructors joined the Columbia Faculty Union by signing union recognition cards over the summer and are planning to bargain for better working conditions, including wage increases and health care benefits.

Steven Lazaroff, a second-year graduate student in the MFA poetry program and instructor in the English and Creative Writing Department, said the idea to unionize became concrete during the summer when students began meeting with members of  C-Fac. From there, they worked on getting union cards signed and submitted for recognition, he said.

Peter Ricci, a second-year graduate student in the MFA fiction program and instructor in the English and Creative Writing Department, said having GSIs unionize with C-Fac will help them fight for better working conditions.

“There’s the material benefits of it, of being able to bargain with C-Fac for better pay and access to health care, which we don’t have as GSIs because we’re not technically faculty,” Ricci said. “We’re teaching classes and have all the responsibilities of faculty in putting together agendas every class, doing grades, meeting with students, maintaining office hours, all of those same core responsibilities, but we’re not considered faculty by the college.”

Ricci said being a graduate student requires a larger workload in addition to teaching. He said because GSIs are not getting paid enough to support their livelihood, they  often need to find additional work on top of their other responsibilites as students and instructors.

“Unionization and being able to bargain becomes  important so that we’re not completely maxing ourselves out and driving ourselves into a ditch every semester trying to keep everything afloat,” Ricci said. “That’s not what being a graduate student should be.”

Diana Vallera, adjunct professor in the Photography Department and C-Fac president, said the union wanted to bring together all  non-tenure faculty at the college, which was the reason for recently changing its name from Part-Time Faculty Union to Columbia Faculty Union.

“When our union first organized, there wasn’t an option of unionizing outside of part-time faculty, and with recent decisions in the [National Labor Relations Board] in the last few years, it allowed all non-tenure [faculty] to organize under one bargaining unit,” Vallera said. “Which of course allows a lot more strength and decisions and having a voice in the college.”

Vallera said the union is waiting for a response from the college to see if it will voluntarily recognize GSIs as part of the union.

“We absolutely have to work together and not allow them to try and pit us against each other,” Vallera said. “Certainly as a union, we’ve taken a big initiative. We’ve seen this school aggressively trying to prevent unionization.”

Senior Director of the News Office Lambrini Lukidis said in an Oct. 25 email statement sent to The Chronicle that the college has not received notification of a successful formal vote by a majority of GSIs and Teaching Assistants to join the union.

“However, the college would not recognize any organization as an exclusive bargaining representative without ensuring those individuals have been afforded their rights to proceed under the National Labor Relations Act,” Lukidis said in the statement. “Those rights could include requesting a secret ballot election, one that is overseen by the neutral Labor Board here in Chicago.”

Ricci said unionizing is also a direct response to the changes happening to higher education nationwide, with colleges focusing less on education and more toward a corporate model.

“That’s why we’re all here, and we saw joining the union as a great way to fight that trend and maintain the things that we’ve loved about Columbia for future cohorts because we’re all going to be gone either this year or next year,” Ricci said.

About 25 GSIs have joined C-Fac and are currently working on deciding leadership positions, he said. Ricci added that the effort to unionize with C-Fac has been entirely student-led.

Jeffrey Barbieri, second-year graduate student in the MFA nonfiction program and graduate student instructor in the English and Creative Writing Department, said the college exploits GSIs because they want to have classes taught as cheaply as possible.

“What they’re trying to do is get a lot of these classes taught for as little as possible since they don’t have to treat us the same way as part-time faculty,” Barbieri said. “That’s not good for part-time faculty, that’s not good for us, that’s not good for students.”

The GSIs have submitted signatures and hope to be recognized by the college moving forward, Ricci said.

“The next process is working with the union on what our demands are going to be at the bargaining table,” Ricci said. “That means talking with union representation and saying, ‘Okay, these are the things that the GSIs want,’ and then they bring that to the [bargaining] table with the college.”

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