Bargaining finally took place on Morningside campus—and on International Workers’ Day! Thank you to all those who have joined us in our ongoing efforts to negotiate a fair and strong first contract. Highlights of the session included a compelling set of testimonials from graduate workers regarding the importance of a fair grievance procedure, the challenges of working with hazardous chemicals in our lab research, and the need for adequate workspace to carry out quality teaching and support of our students, as well as discussions about protections for international student workers.
With the input we’ve received from GWC-UAW workers about our conditions here at Columbia we were able to not only present strong proposals during the session, but also to back them up with the words of TAs and RAs (keep the emails coming: firstname.lastname@example.org!). Columbia is fighting to keep control over our working conditions, but the testimonies on May Day made it clear that if Columbia wants to continue to be a first rate institution that provides excellent learning conditions for its undergraduate and graduate students, it must establish fair and stable working conditions for its TA and RAs.
Our seventh bargaining session began with a May Day rally organized by Student Worker Solidarity to commemorate our fellow workers’ past and current struggles. GWC bargaining committee member Dan Blatter (Earth and Environmental Sciences) spoke to the significance of International Workers’ Day and reminded us of the one year anniversary of both our strike and of Harvard’s recognition of their own graduate workers union. This spirit of solidarity followed us to the bargaining room in Lerner Hall, where the session began with a rousing version of “Solidarity Forever,” sung by more than 50 GWC supporters (shout out to Amelia!) and our bargaining committee.
We presented three essential contract proposals: International Student Worker Rights and Work Authorization, Grievance and Arbitration, and Health and Safety. Noura Farra (Computer Science) presented our proposal on International Workers, which, among other provisions, would establish Columbia as a sanctuary campus for international and undocumented workers, ensure SAs have access to fully subsidized legal advice, cover visa and work authorization fees, and provide support to SAs affected by discriminatory visa policies.
Before Batul Hassan (Population and Family Health) presented our Grievance and Arbitration article, Ian Bradley-Perrin (Sociomedical Sciences) provided a testimony of his own experiences with late pay and false financial promises by the University and the detrimental effects on his and his family’s financial situation. A transparent grievance procedure could have helped alleviate his problems by identifying a swift solution and pressuring the University to adhere to its commitments. As outlined in our last blog, our proposed Grievance and Arbitration article would establish a three-step mechanism for settling workplace complaints and concerns within the University but also allow SAs and the Union to bring unresolved issues to a neutral, third-party arbitrator for a final and binding decision.
To introduce our Health and Safety proposal, Trevor Hull (Chemistry), presented a compelling testimony about the insufficient application of safety standards in many SAs’ work with hazardous materials while also stressing the urgent need for safety when dealing with these materials, the varied nature of safety requirements across Columbia and the benefits of graduate workers being part of writing and implementing health and safety policies. The Health and Safety proposal was then presented by Yash Amonkar (Environmental Engineering). Our proposed article would ensure safety at all workspaces, appropriate safety tests, workspace accessibility for SA’s with disabilities, access to workers compensation in case of a health and safety related injury and the formation of a joint Union and University Health and Safety committee, among many other provisions. The response of the administration’s team indicated that they considered health and safety conditions to be a serious matter, and we hope that their response to our proposal reflects that too.
Later, we countered Columbia’s counterproposal to our Workspace and Materials article, which we originally presented at our April 5th session. Umberto Mazzei (Italian/Core) testified about the lack of appropriate office hour space and elaborated that while core instructors build a relationship of trust with their students over the course of one year, private conversations to manage intensely stressful or confidential situations are made even more difficult by the lack of office space. His testimony not only revealed how office space is one of the most basic provisions one could expect as an SA, but it also shed light on a reality that this administration seems to be constantly oblivious to: that our daily duties as TAs and RAs involve essential labor, including providing social and emotional support to our students, without which the university cannot function. Helen Zhao (Philosophy) introduced the counterproposal, stressing how we, TAs and RAs lack adequate space to perform even our most basic duties.
A constructive discussion ensued about our proposals and counterproposals. Columbia’s team responded to the timeline of our grievance procedure by calling it unreasonable: we had proposed short deadlines for the University to respond to SA grievances to ensure resolutions are reached as quickly as possible; Columbia pushed back, despite our provision for the extension of these deadlines through mutual agreement.
As a response to our International Workers’ proposal, Columbia’s bargaining team stated they agreed with us in principle. They went on to chronicle how much they had done for international students over the past five years, how they had no philosophical objections to assisting international workers, and that they themselves had two international members on their team — as if that settled the matter. However, they would not commit to enshrining certain protections, such as sanctuary campus provisions, in our contract, fearing retaliation from the Trump administration. We pointed out to them that it was Provost Coatsworth himself, as well as the director of the International Students Office David Austell, who had given verbal promises to keep the status of undocumented students confidential and prevent ICE officials from coming on campus (without search warrants).
Columbia presented us with three proposals: Union Activity/Access, Workweek, and Recognition. Their Union Access article, if implemented, would single us out as the only Union on campus to not have access to common space or presence at orientations. Their “Workweek” article, which, after some deliberation, they conceded could be a response to our Workload article, lacked the specificity of workload protections that we had demanded. It moreover attempted to blur the line, particularly for research assistants, between our paid work and the work we do to satisfy our academic requirements. Columbia’s lawyer even went so far as to claim that the number of students assigned to a TA was solely an academic judgement and would not be treated as workload. Does the number of students per TA not affect your workload and work hour expectation?
And the cherry on top of their Union Busting Cake was their Recognition article proposal. The University’s team, incredibly, proposed the removal of all undergraduates and Master’s students from the unit, so that they can continue to exploit and keep underpaying them. This is the first proposal they have made that we outright rejected. Master’s and undergraduate workers are part of our unit, and we will continue to fight for all of Columbia’s academic workers as bargaining continues.
Since our last session, we have received quite a lot of correspondence from workers across different schools and degree programs telling us about issues they’ve had with their working conditions. This has helped us tremendously in preparing our contract proposals and the bargaining session itself. Please keep them coming! We look forward to hearing your stories, which you can send to email@example.com.
The next session is on May 6th, 1-5 PM, in Studebaker 207. Your attendance really makes a difference. We hope to see many of you there!
GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee.