Bargaining continues! During our 5-hour long session this Thursday, the key issues we discussed were workload and intellectual property. In what was our fifth bargaining session, the GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee continued the push for a strong and fair contract only to be met with the University’s strategy of denying reality: That we are workers (as well as students) whose labor should be valued as much as any employee at this university. That means agreeing to meaningful protections against unfair demands and recourse when necessary.
To start with, Eva from the Architecture Department presented an article that would establish protections for student workers against unreasonable work demands and give them an opportunity to initiate a grievance. Dan (Earth Science) presented an article that would ensure student workers are properly acknowledged for the intellectual work they do and protected from retaliation if they shine light on cases of scholarly misconduct. At an elite research university, these basic protections are fundamental to our fight for a contract that establishes fair and stable working conditions.
We expected the administration to disagree with us on the extent to which things need to change (see our last blog: Columbia Clings to the Status Quo). Columbia University did not disappoint. They not only rejected our proposals, but reacted with “shock” and disbelief that we claimed SAs are routinely required to perform tasks that have nothing to do with their assignments or made to work excessing hours. Indeed, throughout the session, we were met with a paternalistic attitude: The administration’s lawyer described the compensation we receive for our work at Columbia as a “gift,” for which we should be grateful.
Responding to their objections to our Workload proposal, and their claim that all research assistant work was to our own benefit, we patiently and firmly informed the administration that, in fact, there is an urgent need for workload protections such as defining required tasks in a job description. Noura (Computer Science) provided examples of work from our RA survey like maintaining server equipment or organizing lab seminars, that do not coincide with our own research work. The administration’s bargaining team, including STEM faculty, said this was all part of our “training,” and was to the benefit of our education. Ian (Public Health) countered the University’s claims with examples of his RA tasks that included helping his supervisor move apartments — to which one of the administration’s members claimed that he didn’t mind helping his advisor with personal tasks, because they were friends. Yash (Environmental Engineering) pointed out that some RAs are required to work seven days a week in the lab, sometimes ten or more hours a day. We explained that the power imbalance between student workers and advisors, as well as the oppressive atmosphere and unhealthy work culture that prevail in some labs and departments, leave student workers without recourse in case of abuse. The administration’s response was: “We don’t believe that too many – or any – RAs are exploited”, ignoring the fact that our RA survey indicated otherwise, and calling it “subjective.”
Unfortunately, pretending that there is no problem seems to be where the Columbia administration is at right now. During the previous session they termed our Workspace proposal “pie-in-the-sky” because it called on Columbia to provide student assistants with a desk in a designated space in order to help TAs and RAs to effectively support students and carry out duties. When we proposed a reasonable limit on the number of students a TA can be asked to teach at one time, Columbia’s lawyer asked what the university was supposed to do if a class becomes oversubscribed. “Well, hire another TA,” we replied. When he cast doubt on the university’s ability to afford that, Dominic (Sociology) reminded him that the university can afford to pay his salary. (For reference, Columbia’s lawyer earned more than $5,000 during Thursday’s bargaining session alone — a senior lawyer from Proskauer typically bills at well over $1,000/hr — which approximately equals what a TA earns in the course of a semester.)
Columbia’s insistence on the status quo was also visible in their counter to our proposal on Paid Leaves — theirs simply referred us to the existing student leave policy, calling our proposal “out of the realm of reason.” When we asked them to explain exactly which part of our proposal they considered unreasonable, they refused to answer, asserting that they would not discuss it, and requesting that we “give them a more reasonable proposal.” Helen (Philosophy) and Dan pushed back, explaining how student leave policies, which differ across schools, are written with students’ concerns in mind, not those of workers. And that we are here to bargain over our working conditions!
The session ended with a reminder to Columbia about our most recent Request for Information. The University’s team suggested that we reach out to our own department administrators for the data instead of providing us with the information themselves, claiming it was extremely difficult to ‘capture the data’ on payment histories and rent charged to student assistants.
We are sitting at the table with Columbia to strengthen the benefits we currently enjoy and provide protection against the abuse and exploitation that we have no recourse against. A strong contract must address the very real concerns that we are fighting for — concerns that arise directly from our daily experience as student workers at this university. Our demands cannot be dismissed by a patronizing wave of the hand, and we will continue to remind Columbia of that. Come join us for our next bargaining session, taking place on Morningside campus for the first time: May 1st, 2-6pm, Lerner Hall Broadway Room. If you can’t make it in person, student workers are now live tweeting from the sessions — please follow, share, and comment!
Also, we’d like to hear from you! During your time at Columbia, have you ever been asked to work an unreasonable amount? Has your PI skirted lab safety standards? Have you had to wait months to get reimbursed for work-related travel expenses? Have you found it difficult to get access to the health care you need, or been shocked at the bill you received afterward? Please tell us what your work has been like for you — it is clear that we need to educate the administration about the daily reality of life as a student worker at Columbia. Your personal experiences will be a powerful force driving the bargaining process forward. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s make Columbia University a truly excellent place to study and to work. We look forward to hearing from you!
See you on May Day!
GWC Bargaining Committee