At our fourth bargaining session on Tuesday, Columbia once again showed its unwillingness to bargain on real improvements to workers’ conditions beyond the status quo. We knew that we would have to advocate for our members, but we didn’t anticipate just how clueless and indifferent Columbia would be to the reality of our daily grind. After all, they’re supposed to be administering this university, so they should know what’s going on, right?

The session began with a series of questions from our side in response to the counter-proposals and outright rejections of our proposals from last session. Columbia’s team revealed their motives in rejecting our subcontracting proposal, acknowledging that if we win these protections, “all the other unions will want it, too.” When pressed on the need to ensure grading — a critical responsibility of TAs, preceptors, and faculty — isn’t outsourced to a cheaper alternative like grading companies, their Proskauer lawyer openly questioned the importance of grading to the University’s fundamental interest of “training the next generation of scholars.”

The Columbia team insists on maintaining the status quo. But the fact that they simply don’t understand what that entails has become abundantly clear over the past several weeks. For example, our travel proposal states that expenses for work-related travel should be paid up-front by the University rather than making the SAs pay out-of-pocket and then wait months to be reimbursed. The administration team rejected this proposal outright on the grounds that they want one standard policy. When we pointed out that travel policies currently vary wildly across departments, their lead negotiator seemed shocked and mumbled instead about “decentralization,” contradicting their officially stated reason for rejecting our travel proposal in the first place.

They additionally continued to demonstrate that they were out of touch with how research and teaching appointments really work at the university, claiming that a majority of workers in our  unit do not work the entire duration of their program or receive W-2s in their first year, which is simply untrue and ignores the large population of workers who are not in GSAS. When pressed about guaranteeing funding, for example, for those whose PIs had lost their grants, they still would not acknowledge the responsibility of the University to support this guarantee in a contract.

Following our questioning, we also introduced two new proposals:

Union Access and Rights

This article specifies that university will provide reports every pay period on the status of Student Assistants and provide release time for SAs who are union representatives. It also grants the union access to the university mailing system and other communication channels, meeting spaces, printing stations, and an office space for union business. Additionally, the article specifies that the union will have access to the workspaces of all SAs and their orientations to provide information about the union.  

Discipline and Discharge

The articles establishes the terms under which Student Assistants can be dismissed from appointments and the rights to which SAs are entitled in any disciplinary or discharge process. The article includes a right to a disciplinary conference between the SA, their supervisor, and union representatives before any disciplinary action is taken. It also includes the right to file a grievance in the event that an SA is disciplined or discharged.

The University then came back with counter-proposals to our Workspace and Materials, Vacations, and Holidays proposals which we had presented last time. Their counter-proposals once again revealed their fear of making any changes to the status quo and their unwillingness to make changes that benefit our unit as a whole. At the same time, they insisted that their preferred policies for travel and healthcare be applied to everyone.

Incredibly, they didn’t think all SAs should get to have a desk, and they said that SAs who celebrate religious or cultural holidays not included in the University’s academic calendar should not be guaranteed even the right to request that time off. They proposed that only doctoral SAs  who work 12 months a year should get any vacation time (no more than 10 days a year), with no vacation time at all for SAs who work shorter appointments. All because they want to maintain their current holiday and vacation policies, the former varying across schools and the latter only introduced in the Fall.

But one thing Columbia’s lawyer said was true. We and our sister unions here and at other universities are fighting against the same bosses. Together, we have an opportunity to improve working and learning conditions for workers and students alike across the University system. That is the power of collective bargaining and Columbia is scared of it.

We’ll continue to keep you updated as our fight for a strong, transformative contract continues. Better yet, come join us in the room at our next bargaining session on Thursday, April 18th from 9am-2pm!