Last Monday, May 13, we met with Columbia’s bargaining team in Lerner Hall to present a significant contract article — Non-Discrimination and Harassment — and several counter-proposals — Severability, Union-Management Committee, Employment Files, Job Posting, Appointment Notification and Job Description, and Appointment Security. More than 1,700 GWC-UAW members sent a clear message to Columbia in an open letter — read aloud by Aya Labanieh (English) — demanding a neutral process that ensures real recourse to sexual harassment and all the other ways that the administration tries to make graduate workers (and students) feel powerless. The goal of our Non-Discrimination and Harassment article is to prohibit discrimination and harassment of undergrad and grad workers, ensure real recourse through, among other things, a neutral arbitrator, and prevent future harassment and discrimination by changing the culture at Columbia.
See below for a detailed summary of the proposals and testimonials from last Monday. Our next bargaining session will be on May 29 in Studebaker 207, at 1:15pm. GWC has a working group for Sexual Harassment. If you’re interested in helping the union build our campaign around Nondiscrimination and Harassment which Columbia is sure to fight, get in touch with Rebecca Glade (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Niyati Shenoy (email@example.com), our fearless organizers heading this group, to get involved!
As a result of the summer bargaining referendum, we’ll be announcing more bargaining dates soon. In the meantime, if you have personal experiences you’re willing to share about your working conditions, e.g. wages, health benefits, late pay, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our union’s main task now is to send a clear message to Columbia that we are serious about a contract that supports, protects, and empowers student workers at Columbia, and Columbia had better get serious too.
Summary of proposals and testimony:
Last Monday, Columbia’s team as usual was not there to bargain with us as equals, but to condescend to undergraduate and graduate workers in the room.
Bargaining was scheduled to start at 1pm. Once again, Columbia’s team was inexplicably late. First, we were told they’d arrive by 1:15pm. Next, we were told their team would be another 5 minutes late. In the end, bargaining began at 1:50pm. While, sadly, this disrespect for our time was unsurprising to us, it was particularly frustrating given how many fellow union members had squeezed valuable hours out of their busy work schedules during finals period to testify about their working conditions, observe bargaining, and support us.
As workers talked about being shut out of the country for 6 months without assistance from Columbia, being shortchanged in wages, organizing around sexual harassment in their departments, and being discriminated against by not only colleagues but also Columbia’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), several members of Columbia’s team shamelessly scrolled through their phones while Columbia’s lawyer and chief negotiator appeared to nap at the table.
Meanwhile, Columbia’s counter to GWC’s Paid Leaves contract proposal noticeably made no attempt to take into account the May 6th testimony of a union member about the many ways Columbia’s student leave policy had failed them. It also ignored our proposal to ensure international SAs have access to 7-day immigration leave to renew their visas.
Bargaining with Columbia’s team can be infuriating, to say the least, especially when it seems their team hasn’t even bothered to read our proposals.
Thanks, then, to all the workers who joined us at the table on Monday to help us make our case for a contract that protects us from retaliation, injustice, misconduct, and abuse, and empowers student workers. Undoubtedly, highlights of Monday’s bargaining session were the detailed, informative, and often upsetting testimonials we heard from 7 of our fellow academic workers.
A graduate worker from Computer Science described being stranded for 6 months in Canada while their visa was processed with delays, without support from Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office. Their experience spoke to the importance of pro bono legal support for international student workers and of securing housing for international workers—two important provisions of our International Student Workers’ Rights and Protections article proposed on May 1.
A graduate worker from English presented and read GWC’s open letter, signed by some 1,700 undergraduate and graduate workers, demanding stronger protections against and enforceable procedures to address discrimination and harassment. This showed Columbia that a strong Non-Discrimination and Harassment contract article is a priority for our union, something we, your bargaining team, and fellow workers are going to fight for.
A graduate worker from History relayed their experience organizing in their department to get a prominent faculty member and serial sexual harasser, William Harris, to step down. Their testimonial spoke to the importance of a contract article ensuring not only actual consequences for and real recourse against harassers, but also the need for protections against retaliation so academic workers feel safe and empowered to exercise their right to organize and advocate for themselves in their departments.
A graduate worker from Neurobiology and Behavior brought home the value of an alternative procedure to Columbia’s EOAA in cases of gender-based discrimination. They described how EOAA’s reasoning about their case was itself discriminatory, excusing a possible case of sexism on the grounds that the person accused was only dismissive and disrespectful to “a certain type of woman.” This spoke to the need for a grievance procedure to hold Columbia’s own investigations into discrimination and harassment accountable.
A former graduate worker from Earth and Environmental Science described their experience first independently, then with the reluctant help of their department, collecting valuable information from graduate workers prematurely leaving the program because of oppressive working conditions. This worker’s experience organizing in their department underscored the importance of anonymous exit surveys for addressing specific departmental problems, a key provision in our Non-Discrimination and Harassment proposal.
Finally, two workers in very different situations testified about the value of a public job-posting website for all “open-hire” positions, i.e. positions not used to fulfill a commitment of financial support made to a student either at the time of admission or under an existing advising relationship with a faculty member.
An undergraduate worker from Computer Science described the effectiveness of their department’s public job-posting website, especially for ensuring equal opportunity for undergraduates from all departments — English, Economics, Mechanical Engineering, and Physics — to apply for TA positions.
Meanwhile, a graduate worker from Communications memorably described having their wages for a teaching position in GSAS cut from $32,000 to $10,000, just because they disclosed that they were a graduate student worker in the Columbia Journalism School. Their experience testified to the importance of a public website to ensure that graduate workers in Communications who only receive 3 years of funding for a usually 7-year program have opportunities to support themselves through teaching.
Columbia noted in their response to our 7-page long Non-Discrimination and Harassment article that this was an important issue for them and that they would get back to us after consulting others. But then, in our back and forth about their counter to our Holidays proposal, their lawyer scoffed at our proposal to accommodate religious and cultural holidays not included on the university calendar, claiming it was not a necessary proposal and that the status quo of requesting supervisor approval for taking religious holidays would suffice. So much for non-discrimination. Columbia’s team doesn’t seem to understand that in an environment where our rights are neither recognized nor guaranteed, workers, especially those from protected groups, may not feel empowered to request supervisor approval for holidays and vacations, and if they did, nothing guarantees that these requests will be granted. Good working conditions are a right and not a gift to be bestowed upon us by our supervisors.
Nonetheless, we are very close to reaching agreement with Columbia’s team on Severability and the Union-Management Committee. Meanwhile, our counters on Employment Files, Appointment Notification, and Appointment Security have been met with much more resistance. Among other things, GSAS Dean Alonso doesn’t seem to realize that many graduate workers don’t receive the financial support they need to finish their degrees. Columbia’s team has admitted that they are well aware not all student assistants receive guaranteed funding for their research and teaching work, and yet our proposal to guarantee appointments for all doctoral workers, they say, is “radical” and “confusing”. They insist that the university lacks the resources to ensure all doctoral workers, not otherwise financially supported, get a teaching or research appointment — even as their lawyer gets paid by Columbia more than $1000/hr. Columbia’s team also continues to argue that the university is too decentralized to make the changes proposed by our articles — even as they make sweeping, unilateral changes to their student health insurance plan that will cause those currently on the 100 Plan to pay way more out of pocket for health services.
As recently announced, GWC has decided by unit-wide vote to bargain over the summer. Moving into the summer, there are a few lessons to keep in mind from this semester of bargaining.
First, if you care to share, let us know your stories at email@example.com. Even when Columbia isn’t, we and other union members in the room are listening carefully. Your testimony and regular communication with organizers is invaluable for ensuring contract proposals address your concerns and demands. As we move further into negotiations, we want to know your priorities so that when we bargain, we do so to our members’ advantage.
Second, in light of Columbia’s shameful behavior at the bargaining table, it’s clear that talk will only get us so far. We need to begin escalating our pressure on the university given how disengaged their bargaining team is, how determined they are to maintain the status quo no matter how much and how loudly we tell them the status quo is broken.
Third, your engagement means a lot to us! We are strongest with you beside us, either in the room or in spirit. So please, keep reading the blog! Stay up to date with the schedule and locations of bargaining sessions, in case you have time to spare to come watch, meet, and share your thoughts with us.
Thanks again for your support and engagement with the union! Our next bargaining session will be on May 29, in Studebaker 207. We hope to see and/or hear from you soon.
GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee