Columbia University Majors in Union Busting

February 27, 2018

Columbia_1199mag_JanFeb2018_fa.jpgHealth clinic workers at Columbia University in New York City who voted more than a year ago to join 1199SEIU are in a protracted first contract struggle with the wealthy institution.

The eight medical assistants and laboratory workers who staff Columbia’s student health centers have been at the table with the university since last December, when they unanimously voted for union representation. Afterward, Columbia insisted the health center workers negotiate their own collective bargaining agreement rather than recognize the group under the university’s existing contract with 1199.

In talks with clinic workers, Columbia — which has an endowment of more than $10 billion and charges an annual tuition of over $50,000 per year — is consistently refusing to meaningfully bargain on issues including healthcare coverage, a contractual sexual harassment policy and the formation of a safety and health committee. Workers characterize those things and basic job security as the driving forces behind the organizing drive.

“Things were really changing. We felt our jobs were always in jeopardy. If we didn’t organize when we did a lot of us could be out of our jobs,” says Marcia Sutherland, a medical assistant at Columbia for 16 years. Workers also noted that Columbia has continued to harden its line with labor and push back against organizing and union rights at the college.

“The strategy is that they want to get concessions out of us to use in negotiations with other unions at the college,” Sutherland added.

To send the message that Columbia’s tactics don’t fly with workers, 1199ers joined hundreds of graduate student teaching assistants at a Feb. 1 rally. The teaching assistants organized with the United Auto Workers more than a year ago. Since then, the school has used a host of legal maneuvers to avoid bargaining with them, and most recently publicly announced its refusal to recognize the election or the teachers’ status as workers.

1199 Delegate Eduardo Gil, a law library assistant at the school, says Columbia is definitely sharpening its anti-union claws.

“I was in some negotiations last week,” he noted. “And they were the most acrimonious I have seen here in all my years.”

Health center workers say they’re not intimidated. At press time they were scheduling a walk in on the boss and several other solidarity actions.

“We are brothers and sisters, and we are going to stick to our guns,” said Medical Assistant Yonette Bourglas. “Cohesion is very important if we are going to accomplish anything. We are the one most invested in making sure the bosses here are respecting the law and workers. We are going to stay in this fight until the bitter end.”

- 1199 Magazine: January/February 2018