Here’s a summary of our latest bargaining session — June 21, 2019:
- We demanded that Columbia rescind the elimination of the Student Health 100 Plan, which hundreds of student assistants currently benefit from. Columbia’s bargaining team insisted that this was a “student health plan” and thus subject to unilateral modification or elimination at any time.
- We highlighted that our Paid Leaves proposal honors the spirit of the current GSAS parental accommodation policy, expanding it to include other important reasons for which a student worker could take this kind of leave (currently limited to childbirth or adoption). Columbia’s bargaining team derided our proposal as “ridiculous” and urged us to rely on informal arrangements to deal with serious life events and crises.
- We presented new counter-proposals on Workspace and Grievance, with the latter encountering significant disagreement by the University due to Columbia’s insistence that neutral arbitration be handled in a two-step process that is unprecedented for any union contract.
And here’s a more in-depth recap.
In our session on Friday, we had an intense discussion about the University’s recent announcement that it would eliminate the Columbia Student Health Insurance 100 Plan effective August 15. This change is a decision that Columbia failed to negotiate with GWC-UAW. As many student assistants have expressed to us recently, the decision to eliminate the 100 Plan will impose significant cost increases on hundreds of student assistants, including some of the most vulnerable members of the SA community at Columbia, such as those with chronic illnesses, in need of major services, or who rely on regular prescription medications. We also pointed out that the decision would represent a takeaway of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of premium subsidies, since the University currently covers the entire cost of the 100 Plan for hundreds of doctoral student assistants and provides 50% of the cost to upgrade to the 100 Plan for hundreds of others. For example, the University currently fully subsidizes the 100 Plan for doctoral research assistants at the Medical Campus, which is worth $4,270 per year, whereas the new plan will only cost $3,433. In other words, the University is taking away $837 per year worth of health insurance from each RA who now receives the 100 Plan fully subsidized.
Even after we explained the devastating impacts of the University’s unilateral decision, the Columbia team had no credible justification for the elimination of the 100 Plan. Instead, the University’s bargaining team rationalized the decision by clinging to their belief that, because the 100 Plan is a “student” insurance plan available to all students, they have no obligation to bargain over the decision with the Union, even though healthcare is clearly part of our compensation as workers. We will continue to demand that the University rescind this decision and reinstate the 100 Plan.
We also had a heated exchange with Columbia’s team over our Leaves proposal, the essence of which is borrowed from the GSAS Parental Accommodation policy which states that “the spirit of this accommodation is to relieve new parents of all academic concerns, and effectively to pause all such obligations during this time period so that the student may return to academic work still in good standing.” While on parental accommodation, a student assistant’s teaching, lab work, coursework, and research responsibilities are suspended; full-time student status, health insurance, pay/stipend, and housing eligibility are preserved; and extra time is awarded toward the completion of their degree equivalent to the amount of time on parental accommodation.
Our Leaves proposal basically extends this policy to cover other reasons why a student worker would need to take time off: illness, mental health, caring for an ill family member, etc. It also would provide short-term leaves for international student assistants to be able to deal with immigration-related issues, and paid sick days.
Rather than acknowledge the merits of their own Parental Accommodation policy and bargain with us over the scope and length of our proposed changes, Columbia’s high-paid lawyer took the low road, repeatedly calling our proposal “ridiculous” and suggesting that we don’t have the right to propose real, substantive changes to our working conditions. He pointedly refused to address the fact that under Columbia’s current Leaves policy, a student assistant who took medical leave to deal with a serious health condition would potentially:
- Have their pay reduced to zero
- Get kicked out of Columbia Housing
- Lose their student status (critical for international student workers, who depend on it to stay in the country); and
- Lose their health insurance subsidy after one term; and lose their health insurance entirely after two.
Dean Alonso, meanwhile, acknowledged that there are times when student workers need to step away from their responsibilities, but suggested that we should just rely on informal arrangements with supervisors rather than a contract that clearly defines and protects a student worker’s rights. Moreover, Columbia not only completely ignored our proposal for short-term immigration leave, but also informed us that they had no immediate plans to give us any counter-proposal on international workers’ rights, an article we presented almost two months ago.
If Columbia’s team thinks that giving its workers time off to deal with serious life conditions is ridiculous, or that proposing guaranteed appointments is ridiculous, they should take a good look at their Management Rights proposal, which suggests that working hours is an “academic” matter; or their Grievance proposal, which suggests that an entirely separate arbitration process should be instituted to decide whether a dispute is academic; or, best of all, their Compensation proposal, which suggests that wage increases are not to be bargained by the Union.
Needless to say, we will continue fighting to improve your working conditions — on Grievance, Leaves, Healthcare, and many others that are important to you.
As always, if you have anything to tell us, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We especially want to hear from you if you have faced a hardship or hurdle to your success as a student worker. Your stories matter and we will continue to fight to make sure they are heard.