Grad Students are Unionizing to Fight Campus Sexual Assault

A certified union at Columbia University would mean higher compensation, better benefits and improved labor protections for graduate research and teaching assistants. But beyond that, the workers see unions as a powerful force to fight collectively against a serial problem for female, trans and non-binary individuals on college campuses: sexual assault.

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“Schools have failed thus far to adopt a culture that respects victims rights,” says Sejal Singh, a Columbia alumna, a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at Know Your IX, and the Campaign and Communications Manager at the Center for American Progress. “They should respond promptly and equitably to reports of sexual harassment and violence. However, we often see that schools violate their legal requirements and do not uphold civil rights under Title IX.”

In response, graduate workers are pushing back. The movement to unionize workers on campus is growing at Columbia and elsewhere, particularly following the National Labor Relations Board ruling last summer that graduate workers at private universities are full employees, which entitle them to union rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Graduate students at Columbia have vied for institutional recognition since voting overwhelmingly to unionize last December.

Members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers Union (GWC-UAW) hope to hold their school accountable on issues like sexual assault by demanding a union labor contract; however, the university has been less than accommodating.

One of the union’s bargaining committee members, Olga Brudastova, a PhD student and teaching assistant in Columbia’s civil engineering and mechanics department, says that Columbia has been reluctant to acknowledge GWC-UAW’s efforts to unionize and refuses to come to the bargaining table. To avoid doing so, and to stifle the movement, the school offered larger stipends and longer maternity leave to its graduate workers. But, Brudastova says, not one member took the bait, and their union will continue rallying and gaining momentum until Columbia starts to negotiate with them.

“It’s despicable that Columbia has delayed this process,” says Brudastova. “Every day we don’t get to bargain, everyday we don’t have a contract, is another day we don’t have protections for survivors of sexual assault.”

Columbia has drawn a great deal criticism in recent years for its failure to take action against sexual assault. Former art student Emma Sulkowicz gained widespread recognition in 2014 for a performance art piece in which she carried a dorm mattress around campus for the entire academic year. She intended to do so until her alleged rapist was either expelled or had otherwise left the university, but Columbia ultimately found the accused not guilty—a decision that was met with intense opposition from student activists and other advocacy organizations nationwide.

In 2016, assistant professor Enrichetta Ravina filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Columbia, claiming that when she reported unwanted advances from a tenured professor in her department, the university “dismissed and belittled” her.

This narrative is not uncommon or exclusive to Columbia. In 2015, the Association of American Universities reported that 44 percent of female graduate students say they have been sexually harassed in ways that disrupted their academic and/or professional performance. More recently, the Social Science Research Network found that one in 10 female graduate students at major research universities report having been sexually harassed by a faculty member.

“I saw an innumerable number of peers whose education was compromised by sexual harassment and violence,” says Singh on her time at Columbia. “Many had to take time away from school to recover, many had to change their majors or drop out of classes to avoid someone that had abused them.”

Singh, who graduated from Columbia in 2015 and was highly involved with student activism on campus, says these statistics indicate an alarming truth about rape culture on university campuses. The advantage of unions is that they can disrupt patterns of sexual violence, providing a more permanent check on the university. A union, she points out, ensures the school does not fall back into negligent ways when certain student activists have graduated. The movement continues no matter what.

But under a Trump administration, where Title IX protections are already vulnerable, the proverbial clock is ticking. A signed union contract at Columbia is more urgent than ever.

“The benefit of a union contract is that regardless of what happens at the national stage, even if regulations are reduced according to the federal guideline, a union contract must be followed,” says Gayatri Phadke, a research assistant and PhD candidate in chemistry at the University of Connecticut, where she is an active member of its certified graduate employee union (GEU-UAW). Contracts at UConn were signed in 2015.

Phadke says that unlike academia at the undergraduate level, graduate work is highly linked to specific fields. For graduate workers and teaching assistants, professors are often doorways to larger networks and career opportunities, so they understand that threatening these relationships simultaneously threatens their future. And not only does this kind of violence obstruct a student’s access to education, but it also plays a key role in determining whether they report the sexual misconduct at all. The choices are bleak: Either endure the harassment or drop out of academia altogether.

Now, unions are offering a third option.

Not even two months after contracts were signed at UConn, a female graduate worker was sexually harassed by a professor. After observing the university procedure under Title IX, UConn determined that no evidence existed to buttress the student’s claim. She turned to the union grievance procedure included in her labor contract, which included filing a gender-discrimination complaint with a human rights organization unrelated to the university—and she won.

“Title IX offices often fail to get results for survivors because they are pressured to protect the interests of the university,” Phadke explains. “A union contract contains specific language on discrimination and harassment, in addition to alternative legal avenues that are completely removed from the hold of the university.”

Title IX, as it stands, has the potential to open an independent investigation into sexual assault claims on a university campus, but the final decision on how to proceed with the investigation’s findings ultimately rests with the university. Most unions make a number of additional resources available to survivors when all else fails: third-party arbitration, union representation, and a community support system. Third-party arbitration is a less costly and less time-consuming legal avenue than a civil court case and is nearly always included in a union contract’s grievance procedure.

“With a union there’s a way to resolve this issue without worry about whether administrators will be fair to you,” explains Brudastova. “You are guaranteed representation at every meeting, every step of the way, which is especially important in tragic cases like sexual harassment and sexual assault. You cannot defeat the system on your own.”

Brudastova joined the campaign several years ago during her first year at Columbia when she struggled with late tuition payments. She moved to the United States from Russia after graduating from college. With no savings and her family in Russia unable to help her, she was forced to borrow money from her roommates. Soon after, a union representative knocked on her door, informing her that her financial problem was easily solvable under a union contract. She has been involved with the union ever since.

With Columbia graduate workers continuing their fight for a contract, a majority of GWC-UAW’s task force organizers say they want non-discrimination sexual harassment advocacy and a grievance procedure included in their contract. For a survivor of sexual violence, having that alternative option is important and a legally binding grievance procedure through a union provides that. But it also provides a community network, perhaps the most powerful leverage when demanding that a university do better in protecting its workers and its students.

“When students are united, they’re able to more effectively call for change,” says Singh. “Unions are the most powerful way to do that, they’re a bargaining unit that represents and advocates on behalf of the greater university community.”

Phadke agrees. “One person can only make so much noise,” she says, “and as loud as that person can be, it’s easy for a university to ignore them. But a collective voice… well, that’s much harder to ignore.”

Alexa Strabuk is an editorial intern at Ms. and has worked as a writer, editor, graphic illustrator and editorial intern for magazines including ELLE, YES!, The Student Life and Mochi. She was recognized by the Asian American Journalists Association for her work as an up-and-coming reporter. Alexa is pursuing a B.A. in Media Studies at Pitzer College with a minor in Asian American Studies.

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