On Monday, August 19th, we met with Columbia’s bargaining team at Lerner Hall to present a counterproposal on Discipline and Discharge and further negotiate Employment Files and Training. In addition, a student worker testified about her experience seeking dental care at Columbia.

We are close to reaching an agreement with Columbia on Employment Files. Columbia’s latest counterproposal on Employment Files excludes documents related to filed union grievances from our employment files, a positive step in our direction. While there remain important differences to be negotiated, such as the timeline for removing warning letters from employment files, we are in the final stretch of bargaining this Article.

Meanwhile, Columbia has shown much less willingness to bargain with us on Discipline and Discharge. This Article outlines a procedure in the event that disciplinary action is taken against a Student Assistant (SA) or an SA is fired from their position. It ensures, among other things, that SAs be promptly apprised of all charges and reasons for said charges, have opportunities to respond to charges, and be able to undertake corrective actions if needed and appropriate prior to the contemplated disciplinary action being taken. The overarching goal is to protect SAs’ right to due process and provide opportunities for remediation.

While we’ve made efforts to move closer by proposing a counter which excludes actions based solely on academic performance from the purview of this Article, Columbia has continued to insist on language that gives virtually unlimited discretion to the university to adjudicate disciplinary disputes. They have argued that they cannot accept our proposal because it does not cede unilateral judiciary power to the university on misconduct related in any way to its academic mission. Columbia’s view is that, among other things, whether an SA has been justly fired from their job is not to be determined in the final instance by a neutral arbitrator, because we are students. This is an outrageous position that goes way beyond other contracts with student workers.

We will continue to bargain for a Discipline and Discharge Article that establishes “just cause”, subjecting work-related disciplinary actions to legal standards, and empowers SAs to file grievances in cases of dispute. While both sides and the NLRB agree that we are student workers — that is, both students and workers — our side is committed to negotiating a contract that provides rights, benefits, and protections given our employment relationship with the University. We do not agree with Columbia that our student status exempts our working conditions from third-party neutral arbitration, and that because we are also students, we should not have a say in the conditions and terms of our employment.

Several times, the University has cited the framework agreement as a reason for us to cede decision-making power to them over important aspects of our working conditions. However, they are wrong. The agreement does not stop us from negotiating on any of our student worker rights. This argument is particularly outrageous given that Columbia has already reneged on its commitment to bargain in good faith by illegally eliminating the 100 Plan during negotiations.

Health benefits are a crucial topic of bargaining. Chloe, a PhD student worker in Environmental Science, has testified about the importance of including affordable and quality dental care as part of our contract. In order to qualify for field work essential to her research, she had to get dental work that would have cost her around $2,000 out-of-pocket without insurance. In the end, she spent over $500 on dental insurance and dental work combined, despite that, as conditions of her RA employment, these services should have been covered by Columbia. Her experience was not helped by the fact that Columbia’s own dental care providers do not accept Columbia’s dental plan.

Lastly, in this session, we discussed Columbia’s objections to our Training proposal, which goes beyond their recent counter to ensure that all SAs are provided with necessary work-related trainings, that time spent on training is considered part of our workload, and that SAs have opportunities to give anonymous feedback on the content and delivery of trainings. During the conversation, Columbia’s main objections were to the idea that such provisions were necessary, and that, as with Discipline and Discharge, such provisions should be grievable. While there remains a lot of negotiating to do on this Article, we left the table with a clearer idea of where our conceptual disagreements lie, and where both sides might have common ground.

Our next bargaining dates and locations have not yet been determined. As soon as they are settled, we will be sure to communicate them to you. In the meantime, please continue to send us your questions about the bargaining process, your experiences as student workers, and your hopes for our future contract! We look forward to hearing from you and hope to see you at the next session.