We met with the University on Thursday, November 12 to continue negotiating our first collective bargaining agreement.
Before beginning contract negotiations during our bargaining session Thursday November 12, we brought up a topic of continued concern to the unit—safety protocols addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we asked Columbia how the new NYS regulations limiting gatherings to ten people or fewer will affect ongoing classes and lab work. We also discussed the disturbing lack of communication concerning positive cases to student workers by the administration, which has led to reliance on unofficial worker dissemination of reports. The university replied that classes affected by the new ten-person mandate would be contacted by Monday and that research work might be affected more severely by this new restriction. In lieu of addressing improving communication about positive cases, the University offered to have Melanie Bernitz, Associate Vice President and Medical Director of Columbia Health, give a presentation on safety protocols. We look forward to scheduling our meeting with Melanie Bernitz and will continue to raise concerns over health and safety as the number of positive cases goes up.
On the topic of international student workers’ concerns, the university presented a public link to their amicus brief filed with other schools against the DHS H-1B visa ruling. They also informed us that there will be more ISSO workshops in November and December (dates TBA).
We discussed Non-Discrimination and Harassment, Discipline and Discharge, Tax Assistance, and Management and Academic Rights. We also pressed them for a response on Family Friendly Benefits. The university provided a modified proposal on Leaves of Absence.
- Non-Discrimination and Harassment: We addressed Columbia’s concerns over grieving harassment complaints also processed through EOAA. Columbia’s arguments in the past have relied upon an interpretation of Title IX that claims allowing us an additional grievance process will create ‘inequitable’ circumstances and violate Title IX. This is actually a clear misinterpretation of Title IX, for which there are numerous Guidances from the Department of Education and the 2020 Amendment to Title IX that clarify the language around ‘equitable grievance procedures’. In response to doubt from Columbia’s lawyer, we provided examples of the Department of Education’s responses to public comments from the 2020 amendment, which provide a clear discussion of circumstances in which a Collective Bargaining Agreement arbitration can coexist with a Title IX grievance procedure without conflict. Columbia’s lawyer had no response to our evidence, and instead asserted he would brush up on Title IX, going so far as to congratulate us on thoroughly reading the Title IX regulations. At no point did Columbia offer a reason to prevent non-gender based harassment from being grieved through a union contract.
We additionally maintained our position on including power-based harassment and bullying as grievable under the contract. Here, the Deans insisted that bullying was an abstract topic and difficult to define. They admitted to attempting to create policy for this in the recent past and ultimately giving up. They argued that there was no way to address 100% of cases, and that it would also be exceedingly difficult to prevent retaliation against student workers who put forward claims of power-based harassment by their advisors. We find this argument insufficient and callous. We pressed that instead of lamenting the complexity of these issues, they engage in productive discussion with the bargaining committee to produce a system that could address any—if not 100%—of these concerns. Columbia did not present any arguments opposed to grieving power-based harassment through our contract beyond expressing concern about the difficulty involved in proving power-based harassment. We are hopeful that this will keep moving in a direction towards providing options for real recourse for graduate workers.
- Discipline and Discharge: We next moved on to a discussion of Discipline and Discharge. We once again agreed that the University has sole discretion over discipline and dismissal of a student related to academic matters, such as poor performance in courses or academic dishonesty. However, we still disagree on how broadly the definition of “academic” may be applied to the responsibilities and duties of bargaining unit members. We plan to continue this conversation and intend to reach a conclusion which does not dilute the provision of just cause and guarantees due process for job-related issues.
- Tax Assistance: We again called on the University to consider our Tax Assistance proposal, as the proposal memorializes many current practices at Columbia and requires very little effort on their part. We also drew attention to the Harvard collective bargaining agreement, which provides access to such assistance for international student workers. We reminded the University that we are not asking them to be in the tax business, but to provide access to services which will benefit both international and domestic bargaining unit members at little cost.
- Family Friendly Benefits: We also called for formal consideration of our proposal on family friendly benefits on which we have not yet received a substantive response. We were told that we would receive a response at our next bargaining session. The need for comprehensive family friendly benefits has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, so it is important to make progress on this article to reach an overall agreement on the contract.
- Leaves of Absence: Columbia finally presented a modified proposal on this topic after months of us trying to engage them in a conversation on this part of paid time off. They included gender-neutral language in the definition of a family and included reference to the new NYS law, but did not respond to our previous comments on our unit being largely ineligible for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and NYS Paid Family Leave (PFL)—making those references in the contract meaningless.
Our next bargaining session is scheduled for Thursday, November 19, 1:30-5 PM. In addition, we have scheduled a meeting with the university’s health benefits team on Friday, November 20 at 10 AM. Please fill out this RSVP form if you would like to attend the session(s) over Zoom.