Solidarity, student workers!
We hope you’ve been keeping cool in the sizzling heat of the past week. The GWC bargaining committee kept their cool (the room was incredibly cold, actually) during a four-hour bargaining session with Columbia’s representatives on Tuesday, July 23rd.
The big takeaway from Tuesday’s session is that Columbia remains indifferent and dismissive when it comes to health care.
A quick summary of our session:
- We’re close to agreement on two articles: Travel and Employment Files. The former would create an enforceable commitment by the University to provide travel advances or timely reimbursements for work-related travel, helping to address their all-too-common problem of long delays in reimbursement for expenses. The latter would ensure student worker access to a record of our employment at Columbia.
- We received verbal commitments on receiving counters that we hope will help us make progress on two articles: Grievance and Arbitration, and Appointment Security.
- We gave our initial comprehensive proposal on health insurance benefits, an ambitious proposal for improvements using the current 100 Plan as a baseline. Columbia predictably attempted to dismiss our proposal based on cost, a particularly outrageous response given that they have refused for many months to provide the very information that would enable us to evaluate the costs of potential improvements. Columbia’s bargaining team also remains indifferent about our demand to rescind the elimination of the 100 Plan, despite several powerful testimonies by student workers about the impact. See below for more details, but we expect to have many more discussions of this important topic in coming sessions.
There was some good news, as we appear to be getting close to an agreement with the University on two articles: Travel and Employment Files. The Travel article would ensure travel advances or timely reimbursement of travel expenses for approved, work-related travel, so student workers won’t have to wait months to have high travel costs reimbursed.
In more good news, for the first time, Columbia made a verbal commitment to present a proposal that would recognize the rights of SAs to pursue neutral arbitration for grieving sexual harassment, but only after going through the existing University procedures first. While this is an important move in the right direction, it would not address some of the remaining substantial differences between our proposals in this area. They also committed to give us an improved proposal on Appointment Security next session.
Our session again involved a number of powerful testimonies. A student worker testified about their experiences of sexual harassment at Columbia, further exposing the utter inadequacy of the University’s current systems to protect and support survivors, and provide real recourse. And three SAs provided powerful testimony on their health care experiences and the substantial impact that the elimination of the 100 plan would have on their costs.
As you know, Columbia unilaterally eliminated a platinum health plan (the 100 Plan) that hundreds of student workers have benefited from and right now rely on for access to affordable care. The University did not bother to find out how the decision would adversely affect student workers on the plan – many of whom have chronic conditions requiring regular care – before deciding to eliminate it. Instead, they made the decision primarily to reduce costs, stating that they were following the nationwide trend of “shifting costs from the institution to the user.” They blithely admitted that when changes to health insurance are made, some people end up worse off, but that their goal was to ensure a “better” (this is questionable) plan for the “majority”. We disagree, Columbia, because when you shift the cost of health care to the most vulnerable, you defeat the point of health care.
To educate Columbia’s team about the dire consequences of their decision, student workers shared the details of their personal circumstances; three student workers shared testimony on Tuesday alone. They each made it clear that they could not afford to receive the care they need without the 100 Plan, and might be forced to choose not to receive care instead. One student worker said she needs regular MRI imaging to catch the potential recurrence of cancer, but that each scan will now cost her $700, instead of $100. No student worker should be faced with the choice of paying for rent or food on the one hand, and receiving life-saving health care on the other.
Yet when we again demanded that they reinstate the 100 Plan as a health care option for student workers, they point-blank refused – giving the excuse that because it is a “student” plan, they have no obligation to bargain over it. You would think, then, that when we presented our own health care proposal for employees covered by the bargaining unit (the only people we can bargain on behalf of), they would be open to negotiating it, but they promptly objected to it, saying it was too costly for such a “small” unit. Their refusal thus far to engage in meaningful negotiation over health care means we will need to continue to organize and make clear to Columbia that access affordable, quality and stable health benefits is a huge priority for student workers.
Our proposal sets the 100 Plan as the baseline from which improvements will be made. It also includes improved vision, dental, and mental health coverage for student workers and their dependents.While our proposal is ambitious, it reflects the financial realities of living in Manhattan on student worker pay. For example, we pointed out to them that the $3,000 out-of-pocket maximum for the in-network new student health plan ($6000 for out-of-network) represents more than 10% of a GSAS TA’s post-tax annual income. With nearly half of that income already going to rent, how are we supposed to afford health care? The reality is that, faced with the cost, many of us will simply choose not to seek care – with potentially disastrous consequences for our short and long term health as well as the quality of our work at Columbia, Access to affordable, quality care is not only a core worker benefit, but a human right. We know what’s at stake here, and we’re not backing down because of Columbia’s intransigence.
Have you had challenging experiences receiving or affording the health care you need? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be discussing appointment notification letters at the next session, so please let us know about your experiences with unstable appointments and job descriptions. Your stories are powerful, and they make a difference at the table.
Our next bargaining session is scheduled for the afternoon of August 14, location to be determined. You’re invited to join us at every session, and we would love to see you there!
GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee