Columbia University recognizes graduate student union

Columbia University on Monday agreed to begin contract negotiations with a union representing graduate student teaching and research assistants, ending a long battle in which the Ivy League school denied them the right to unionize.

Columbia now recognizes the union and says it's willing to bargain — under certain conditions.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth said in a statement that talks with the students must begin no later than Feb. 25, 2019.

The United Auto Workers, which represents the students, must first ratify the agreement by Nov. 28.

Under the conditions, the union may not strike or disrupt classes until at least April of 2020. That includes a planned strike starting Dec. 4 that threatened to shut down core classes and affect the grading of finals.

Last spring, the dispute led to a brief strike at the end of the semester.

Under framework signed by Coatsworth, any collectively bargained agreement must not infringe on the school's academic decision-making, and Columbia "will retain the exclusive right to manage the institution consistent with our educational and research mission." However, bargaining includes such issues as wages and hours of employment.

Students consider the decision announced Monday as a big victory.

Columbia administrators have refused till now to negotiate with the union's bargaining committee, even after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that the teaching assistants and research assistants were entitled to unionize. The school argued that graduate students should legally be recognized as students rather than employees.

Universities have generally argued that even though the teaching assistants are paid — their mean annual pay was $35,810 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — treating them like employees would disrupt the mentoring relationship between budding scholars and the professors supervising their academic pursuits and research.