What follows is the GWC bargaining committee’s response to Provost Katznelson’s email sent yesterday.

What the Provost says

What GWC bargaining committee knows

A hallmark of the agreement was the decision we took to significantly raise compensation minimums for postdocs. I should note that the University pursued that course following a study demonstrating that Columbia’s compensation levels for postdocs before the adjustment were “under market,” thus putting us in a zone that was less than fully competitive, and which we sought to remedy. By contrast, current graduate student stipends in comparison to our peers are at the high end, and we are proud of that position. In other words, with regard to compensation, we are at a different starting point in the current negotiation than we were with the postdocs, but for both groups Columbia strives to ensure that the intellectual and economic opportunities of studying and working at Columbia are compelling. Rates of compensation for funded PhD workers at NYU are significantly higher for the same amount of teaching work as we perform at Columbia, and the hourly rates in the Columbia proposal go only $1 above the minimum wage in the first year and $2 in the last year of the proposal. The current proposal increase from Columbia is only enough to cover dues, effectively creating a salary freeze for workers. This cannot be considered a proposal made in good faith.
Our present goal—an agreement with the GWC-UAW that elevates the support made available to our graduate students and does so in a manner that strengthens our collective future—would echo the prior achievement. Yet here we are, having to contemplate the decision—both regrettable and unnecessary in my view—the graduate student bargaining unit has taken to engage in a work stoppage. The work we do is essential to the functioning of Columbia, and as such we expect reasonable proposals from the University in acknowledgement. 
The disappointment many of us feel is grounded not only in the significant burden that our campus would be compelled to bear in the event of a strike during one of the most stressful times in the history of students, staff, and faculty at Columbia, but because, after a long period of relative stasis, there has been considerable progress in our negotiations. Recent weeks have witnessed draft agreements with respect to Management and Academic Rights, Discipline and Discharge, International Student Employees, Leaves of Absence, and Child Care. These issues, now resolved, earlier had been characterized by deep division separating the University and the union. We appreciate the work we have done together to make progress in negotiations. Recently, however, the University team has stonewalled negotiations, stating there will be no further discussion on specific topics such as allowing access to  grievance and arbitration for non-discrimination and harassment cases to create a new option for real recourse, and establishing a union shop (a system of fairly sharing the cost of union respresenation by all benefiting from it).
Based on these achievements, there exists a justifiable hopefulness, certainly by those of us on our side of the bargaining table, about the chance to expeditiously resolve the differences that remain. The elements of an accord on outstanding matters come more clearly into focus with each successive bargaining session, as they did the other day on the subject of recognition concerning the scope of the bargaining unit. Not capitalizing on this momentum is a mistake. We offered the University to negotiate every day of spring break, including weekends, and offered additional dates for this week. The University did not take us up on this and has instead maintained a bargaining pace of two sessions per week. We have repeatedly stated that this would not give us enough time to make progress. If Provost Katznelson is as committed as we are to reaching an agreement, we invite him to accept our offer of additional bargaining sessions this week. 
I am confident that a combination of good will and a willingness to suspend disbelief will help us find our way to considered solutions. For that we need mutual realism. Collective bargaining is an iterative process. No single round can produce optimal results. This is especially so during the pandemic, which has placed Columbia, and higher education more generally, under great fiscal strain, with responses that have included wage and hiring freezes. Regarding compensation, there are lines we are unable to cross. Current demands, set forth as recently as Monday of last week, for increases of 10 percent and subsequent 6 percent annual improvements, simply put, are neither reasonable nor responsible in present circumstances. The University cites their suspension of retirement contributions (of non-unionized employees) as an example of their prudence in response to budgetary challenges. As student workers, we have never been eligible for contributions in the first place. This is just one of many examples that speak to a misunderstanding of our needs and what we are fighting for. 60% of our unit skips dental visits due to cost, and the dental plan made available to us also costs hundreds more than those available to more highly paid administrators and other staff. President Bollinger’s >$4.6 million salary would alone be enough to provide dental and vision insurance to all members of our unit two times over. A pay cut of 25% of his salary –– similar to that of Harvard’s president –– would fund half. 

While COVID-19 has impacted the University’s finances, the costs associated with our demands are a rounding error relative to the deficit. They have also received CARES Act funding, and will likely get a chunk of the upcoming $40 billion stimulus for colleges and universities. In a year of deficit, the decision to maintain high administrator salaries and accept government bailouts, while qualifying our ask for a living wage as unreasonable, is quite plainly a selective weaponization of austerity. 

The University has proposed 2% increases, which, with the exception of this past year, are less than the rate of UAH rent increases and increases from prior years of union organizing. Additionally, the 10% increase cited by Provost Katznelson is only for student workers on 9-month appointments currently earning a salary of $31,140, a wage that leaves those paying rent in Manhattan for a full calendar year in dire financial circumstances. 

There are issues, including critical ones associated with matters of discrimination and harassment, where we are not adversaries (all of us share the wish to have prompt, careful, and just adjudications), and where we need to find mechanisms consistent with law and good practice. In this domain, we need to establish collaborative means not only to improve by ensuring that there are no administrative barriers to an appropriate pace and fair investigation, but to learn how best to secure our common goal by working together over time. Our current proposal agrees to follow Columbia’s process of investigation for discrimination and harassment claims through EOAA first, and has neutral arbitration as a secondary mechanism if the student worker is unsatisfied with the outcome. Our proposal is consistent with the law and good practice, and is similar to the discrimination and harassment protections currently in place for Columbia postdoctoral researchers. 

It is absurd that Columbia is insisting we give up the ability to enforce protections from discrimination and harassment through our contract, when all other union contracts at Columbia have this protection. Further, this is a common and long-practiced process at other schools, which are subject to the same Title IX regulations as Columbia. Jeri Henry, the Vice Provost of EOAA, stated at the bargaining table that she supports more recourse options, but the University team continues to keep this basic provision from its most vulnerable workers. We have repeatedly tried to engage the University’s team to discuss why they are withholding these protections and, after responding that they do not trust arbitrators, they threatened to leave the bargaining table if we raised the issue again. If Provost Katznelson is serious about tackling discrimination and harassment at Columbia, he should tell the University’s bargaining team to put a new proposal on the table instead of the position they have maintained for months, which is far inferior to what Columbia offered to the postdoctoral union and came in a regressive move from the administration.

I know there is much frustration among students that two years have passed since bargaining began. I share that frustration, even if there are identifiable reasons, not least of which is that initial contracts often take this long. First agreements, after all, are hard. I could go on, and not all will agree on this or any other analysis of causes. In truth, none of this is presently relevant. What we need is for both sides to sharpen their focus on getting an agreement ratified, not later than in the coming weeks of this term. The University is committed to this goal. First agreements do take longer, but they should not require two years of bargaining. The Bargaining Committee has been focused on reaching a fair agreement. We have made ourselves available over the entire spring break, over weekends, and many other times, while Columbia’s team has deemed it unnecessary to set up more bargaining sessions. The door is open, the University just needs to walk through it. 
I thus close by entreating our student and union representatives to continue intensive good faith bargaining without striking. We need to be mindful of the price of a stoppage, not least for the thousands of students who have been grappling with non-traditional education via Zoom and hybrid classes. Teaching, including work by TAs, has been remarkably effective, sometimes heroic. It would be disruptive to curtail key features of pedagogy at this particular moment. We stand as one with the student workers of Columbia. Our unit represents every student worker, undergraduate and graduate alike. We are fighting for a better Columbia for all.
Conversely, make no mistake about the importance of a GWC-UAW agreement for all of us at Columbia and, dare I say, for the labor movement. It would be deeply disappointing if we fail to reach an agreement, not just to me or other individuals in the senior leadership of the University, but to faculty colleagues and, I believe, to the great majority of students. Let’s not lose sight of the prize. We have been fighting for our first contract for over six years. As Provost Katznelson knows, strikes do not occur in a vacuum, but to secure much-needed union protections. They can also be averted by a responsive employer, and we are committed to reaching an agreement with or without a strike.