Columbia Rejects Union Health Benefits for the Second Time

We met with Columbia’s bargaining team on November 13 at Studebaker to continue our fight for a strong contract. This was our 19th bargaining session with the university since negotiations began in February 2019. 

A full room at these sessions is as critical as ever to making Columbia understand that we demand a strong contract that takes all academic workers seriously. You are one of the most powerful ways of forcing Columbia to acknowledge us and our demands. 

You can see from the highlights that they did not seem to be in that mindset during this last bargaining session: 

  • The university rejected our Health Benefits proposal (after we restructured the language) for the second time—illustrating they are not serious about bargaining over health care. They also rejected our Union Security proposal which outlines the conditions of union membership, including dues payments and initiation fees.
  • We presented five other counterproposals on International Student Worker Rights, Appointments, Job Posting, Grievance and Arbitration, and Non-Discrimination and Harassment. 
  • The university presented counterproposals on Employment Files, Training, Workspace and Materials. Their Employment Files proposal now secures that enrolled students can access their files regardless of whether they are currently working; their Training proposal now guarantees that all trainings are a part of a student worker’s workload—an important change which ensures appropriate compensation and fair workload requirements. Columbia also re-presented the same Holidays counterproposal we received in May without any changes.

The session began with the university presenting four counterproposals. Their Employment Files proposal came closer to ours with a guarantee that as long as student workers are enrolled at the university, they can access their employment file. However they continue to demand that any warning letters added to a student worker’s file must remain for three years while we have proposed two years, consistent with the support staff contract. 

We are getting increasingly close with Columbia on Workspace and Materials, while still ironing out a few significant differences in our language. The university’s lawyer presented their Holidays counterproposal complaining that aligning holidays between university campuses is not something they could agree to, and neither is the fact that we should be paid 1.5 times extra if we’re asked to work during holidays.

Columbia’s Training proposal accepted our demand that secures compensation and accounts for the workload for any required trainings. Yet, Columbia still refuses to commit to our proposed section in the contract that guarantees the university will provide trainings for student workers that are necessary to fulfill the duties of their jobs. Their verbal agreements at the table that student assistants (SAs) should receive necessary training don’t add up to a commitment in contract language. Even after hearing testimony from a Columbia Core instructor in July that their trainings were ill conceived, the university claims that there is no problem to fix. 

Besides complaining that proposing 7 years of job appointments for every PhD student worker in our unit was a conspiracy to get more funding, the university maintained their usual silence during our articles presentation. After the two sides discussed the session’s counterproposals privately in caucus, Columbia returned with one of their standard speeches that consisted of the following greatest hits: the schools don’t have the money, your proposals are unrealistic, our policies work fine, and this is an “academic matter”. That last one is especially important.

As academic workers, any fight with the administration over what is an “academic matter” becomes merged with a fight for our workplace rights and protections. Every academic worker union has this fight with their university, and we are in our own with Columbia. Currently, the university wants to maintain power over our working conditions by dismissing our demands as “academic matters”. For example, in their Discipline and Discharge article, Columbia has proposed that they can unilaterally fire workers, without providing any justifiable reason, for

“conduct that relates in any way to the academic mission of the university or the academic responsibilities of the Student Employee, (including but not limited to conduct that impacts the quality of teaching or research, failure to perform any assigned teaching or research responsibilities, academic dishonesty, failure to make adequate academic progress, etc.)”.

Contrary to this anti-union position, we have no interest in using the contract to control the university’s mission or even for the nonsensical fear that we might attempt to grieve grades. If the university sought to profiteer off of the ongoing climate crisis by creating a new school instead of adequately funding the vital work of the Earth scientists that they do have, that’s up to them. But what we won’t do is allow the suppression of our rights as workers so that the university can continue business as usual.

During Columbia’s tirade at the bargaining table, they rejected our Health Benefits proposal, again. The university says we cannot bargain over the 100 Plan (that they illegally revoked) and that we should propose our own plan for student workers. We’ve done that. Twice. And they’ve rejected both. In doing this, the university has also failed to negotiate towards fixing fundamental issues with their own care delivery at student health services. Our bargaining committee will not let up pressure until the university gets serious about bargaining a health care plan for the Graduate Workers of Columbia—and we rely on your support to do that.

Join us in pressuring the Columbia administration at our next bargaining session on Friday, November 22nd, 9:30am-1pm at Studebaker Room 469 and keep in touch with us at if you have any questions, concerns, or stories to share. Your involvement makes the difference!

In Solidarity,

GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee