We began our bargaining session on Thursday, November 19, by addressing issues of renewed importance due to NYC school closure. We reminded the University of the insufficient support for parent workers, and emphasized that Columbia needs to do better. Postdoctoral employees put together a petition asking Columbia to reinstate the $3,000 parenting benefit that helped defray costs of childcare. The University told us that they understand these needs and are reviewing the funding renewal.

We also reminded the University that COVID-19 has caused many student workers to stop their research or significantly slow it down, with many losing months of their critical fellowship years. This will almost certainly add time to their degree program, and we hold that student workers should be afforded an additional year of funding. The University again stated that if funding is not available to students, they will be covered; however, students with an external fellowship or award will not receive any additional funding, in essence penalizing them for their efforts. This issue is compounded by reports of discrepancies between the number of years of guaranteed funding promised to student workers versus the number stated in their official letter. The pandemic has highlighted how damaging the practice of unenforceable promises can be. The University insisted that these issues should be dealt with by department heads and not by the central administration.

We also raised the issue of a troubling email that hundreds of student workers received this week threatening to bar them from campus because they had not gotten their flu shot. This was disturbing, especially because most of the student workers contacted had, in fact, gotten their flu shot at University-sponsored flu fairs. The University admitted that this was an administrative error. We maintain that communications can have serious ramifications and should be monitored closely so issues like this never arise.

Bargaining Updates

While the University still refuses to bargain on health benefits, they moved that language out of Management Rights into a separate article. We also saw a positive movement on Discipline and Discharge, where Columbia toned down some language that would have left the discipline or discharge of a student worker solely up to the University’s discretion if it related to the academic mission. The University also reiterated their position that they provide federal tax assistance to international workers, but do not see a need for providing better information about existing free resources to domestic workers. We maintain that the University could make low-cost improvements that would benefit everyone.

International Workers Rights: We presented a new proposal that incorporates language to help improve collaboration on international worker issues between the Union and the University and maintain the recently established practice of regular ISSO town halls. We are looking forward to their response on this article.

Professional Development: Our team passed a new proposal that would guarantee doctoral student workers $1,000 per academic year to use to attend conferences, workshops, or other programs of professional interest. It would also provide a one-time $2,000 grant for groups of workers to organize their own scholarly event. Although this version did not meet the immediate rejection we’ve experienced in the past, the University expressed concern over the costs involved and potential implementation, and suggested that individual schools be responsible for the level of this benefit rather than the central administration. We emphasized that this proposal is modest in comparison to what peer institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Brown provide. However, we had a productive conversation and look forward to engaging further on this topic.

Family Friendly Benefits: The University provided a verbal response to our latest proposal, which outlined their concerns over the costs involved and reiterated their unwillingness to settle these topics in a collective bargaining agreement. We again highlighted the need for the University to support parent workers financially and professionally and reminded them how the pandemic has only made these issues more clear and urgent. The University expressed understanding for the parent workers’ difficult position, but have not yet indicated any movement on this article. We look forward to further discussion.

Health Benefits Session

On November 20, we met with the University for a special session, joined by two members of Columbia Health: Dr. Melanie Bernitz, Medical Director and Associate Vice President, and Michael McNeil, Chief of Administration. The purpose was to discuss student health services at Columbia, including COVID-19 protocols for testing and contact tracing, and ask questions about the health insurance negotiation process.

Dr. Bernitz began by presenting the University’s current procedures for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, noting that the efficiency of Columbia’s contact tracing system had prevented any outbreaks occurring due to any single positive case. These plans will be expanded to include a hard reset of gateway testing in January, when many members of the Columbia community will be returning after varying periods away from campus. We followed up with questions about how decisions about whom to notify of positive cases are made, since some graduate workers, particularly in lab settings, have experienced anxiety over learning of a positive case in their building by word of mouth rather than from a contact tracer. It continues to be a difficult balance between too much and not enough information, although our sense is that grad workers would prefer more, not less communication. Both Dr. Bernitz and Dr. McNeil stressed that the system is constantly evolving to meet changing needs and student feedback.

In our discussion on insurance, we learned more about Columbia Health’s process and timeline for negotiating the student health insurance plan each year. They said they make decisions based on history of benefit usage and the student feedback they solicit from groups such as the Student Health Advisory Council (SHAC). We expressed our concern that these groups may not include individuals with more extensive health care needs, and they responded that they do seek out a diverse membership that includes individuals with high insurance usage. We raised the issue of dental plans, and heard from them about the elimination and reintroduction of dental benefits over the past several years—both made unilaterally by Columbia.

We briefly discussed two overarching questions related to on-campus Student Health Services: the challenges faced by dependent partners covered by the Columbia Plan because they cannot use the online portal system, which requires UNI authentication; and the continuing challenges of scheduling appointments using the online system, despite some changes that have been implemented in response to student feedback.

We hope to meet again soon with representatives from Columbia Health to discuss follow-up questions on insurance and ask questions pertaining to Counseling and Psychological Services. All in all, it was a productive meeting that will help us to have thorough discussions on our Health Benefits article in upcoming sessions.

Our next bargaining sessions are scheduled for

  • Wednesday, December 2, 9:30 AM-1 PM;
  • Friday, December 11, 9:30 AM-1 PM;
  • Tuesday, December 15, 1:30-5 PM;
  • Monday, December 21, 1:30-5:00 PM.

Please fill out this RSVP form if you would like to attend the session(s) over Zoom.