Yesterday marked four years since we won the historic National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Columbia decision restoring the right of student assistants in private universities to unionize. While we honor that remarkable moment for workers across the country, we also take this as an opportunity to reflect on the overall impact of our campaign since we started organizing in late 2013.
In the years prior to the GWC-UAW campaign, graduate worker wages, benefits and rights had stagnated. But since we began organizing for our union and joined with other organizations on campus to mobilize and advocate on the issues that matter to us, we have collectively pushed the administration to respond with a variety of important improvements. While these improvements have made life better for graduate workers in a variety of ways, the Columbia administration increasingly refuses to bargain in good faith and has rigidly resisted putting most of these types of improvements, as well as other important rights, into an enforceable union contract despite persistent majority support. And so we still need to stand together to call for lasting change in a fair and just union contract.
When We Organize, We Win!
Though our fight continues, it is important to take a moment to highlight some of the hard-fought organizing victories over the years of our campaign so far:
- Enhanced family-friendly benefits for PhD student workers. Led by a group of parents, and with growing GWC-UAW support over time, Columbia established a parental accommodation including paid leave, has increased childcare subsidies and now—unlike other Ivy institutions—offers fully-paid dependent health insurance premiums.
- Improved compensation for PhD student workers. PhD stipends have increased significantly since we started organizing. In the five years prior to our campaign, the average annual increase was well under 2%, whereas Columbia has now increased stipends anywhere from 3 to 3.75% for five years in a row.
- Expanding rights for international student workers. The International Student Working Group has been a critical part of our union and has accomplished a lot at Columbia and beyond: helping graduate workers through the 2015 tax debacle; joining the national campaign enhance the OPT STEM extension; winning waiver of the international student fee for funded doctoral students; mobilizing against the Muslim ban; addressing the lack of available summer funding for international students in humanities; and fighting the recent attacks on F-1 visa holders.
- Increased support for non-GSAS PhD student workers. Organizing through GWC-UAW, PhD students in the Schools of Journalism and Social Work have won greater parity with GSAS.
- COVID-19 issues. As the pandemic continues to amplify the deficiencies in the systems that are supposed to support us, most of the recent improvements offered by the University revolve around COVID-19:
- An additional $3,000 made available for those on nine-month appointments;
- Creation of 200 new student worker jobs for summer 2020;
- Additional childcare subsidy of up to $3,000 for those required to report to work over the summer;
- Increase of the parental subsidy in the upcoming year to $4,000;
- Columbia revising its policy for remote work and pay for those currently abroad;
- UAH not increasing rent this fiscal year;
- UAH lifting the lease cancelation fee until the end of August 2020;
- Creation of teaching appointments for 6th and 7th year doctoral students and additional postdoctoral positions for those graduating into the current job market.
While this represents an impressive set of improvements in recent years, the administration’s bargaining strategy has taken a noticeably different tone, especially since the Trump NLRB is attempting to use the rulemaking process to strip us from our right to collective bargaining. Throughout the country, employers are emboldened by the anti-labor appointees to the Board and their anti-union decisions, and Columbia appears to be no exception. While the Provost has publicly committed to the Columbia community to keep bargaining regardless of what happens with the rulemaking process, every agreement at the table has been hard won and Columbia has utterly failed to follow through on its prior commitment to bargain in good faith with GWC-UAW. You may read a fuller summary on the GWC-UAW website, but the pattern of bad-faith bargaining is most notably reflected in the following actions of Columbia’s negotiating team:
- Going backward on non-discrimination and harassment. On this core issue, the University has not only taken a rigid and abhorrent approach, but even withdrew one of its key proposals—a classic example of bad-faith bargaining.
- Unilateral elimination of superior healthcare plan. Within two months from the start of negotiations, the University made a unilateral decision to cancel the better health insurance plan (100 Plan) that was offered as a fully-paid benefit to hundreds of student workers and was chosen by many others with chronic conditions.
- Going back on their commitment to union recognition. In November 2018, Columbia committed to recognize GWC-UAW as the union for the NLRB-certified bargaining unit. But nearly two years later, Columbia maintains a Recognition proposal in bargaining that would exclude hundreds of those workers from the union.
We have been organizing for six years. We have had a legal right to unionize for four. We have been bargaining since February 2019. We deserve a strong first contract that will improve upon what we have gained to date and create a clear grievance procedure for us to enforce our rights. That is why this March 96% of us (1,833 to 77) voted YES to authorize the bargaining committee to call a strike if the negotiations make it necessary.