Yesterday Columbia community received another email from the Provost Ira Katznelson mischaracterizing our negotiations and the ongoing strike of our union. Please share this clarification widely with faculty and students to prevent misinformation spreading.

What the Provost says

What GWC bargaining committee knows

As I write, the union has chosen to break off talks in favor of a strike when we are in hailing distance of a second landmark agreement. I say “landmark” even though a small number of union contracts for graduate student workers at private universities exist because, as a matter of scale and standing, a Columbia agreement would be a signal achievement. The Provost blatantly misrepresents what transpired on Sunday on the eve of our strike. While our team made significant modifications to our economic package on both Friday and Sunday, the University team failed to put on the table proposals with sufficient movement to avert a strike or even stop the clock on the strike deadline. Our team has remained open to negotiating, and continued to bargain today, as scheduled.
Equity has been our watchword, and not just within and among the graduate student community (whose stipends, unlike arrangements that prevail at many universities, are not linked directly to assignment as TAs and RAs, but are paid at the same level when students are in, or not in, a work situation). As I said to the bargaining committee on Friday, what we are offering regarding compensation is not optimal, but, in present conditions, fair. After all, across the University, faculty and staff have had to forego any wage increase for a year, a limitation graduate students did not experience as their stipend increase was set and announced for 2020-21 before the wage freeze was put into effect.

Nevertheless, the University has offered an additional increase at the start of the contract and in subsequent years. The present demand, now at the reduced level of 5 percent and no less than 4 percent in subsequent years, is not tenable, and no strike, as I told the group, can change that reality.

Graduate workers at one of the wealthiest most prestigious Universities deserve a living wage for one of the most expensive cities in the world. No workers (faculty and staff alike) on this campus should experience a wage freeze, and in moments of crisis those at the top who earn disproportionately high payouts should redistribute resources. . We have heard testimonials at the bargaining table of people who have lost weight because they could not afford meals, or who have almost lost their immigration status because of extremely late pay on low wages. 

The offered increase of 2% would barely cover inflation and would go below the status quo of the past few years when the yearly increases ranged between 3-3.75%. By not agreeing to a fair contract the University is levying the financial losses of 2020 onto workers, who don’t have an endowment to support them.

Another outstanding matter concerns unacceptable discriminatory or harassing behavior. Our latest proposal on the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX process reflects a direct answer to the key question raised by the union—how can we widen the lens through which one ensures the fairness of the process undertaken by the University in deciding these difficult cases?

We have listened to these concerns and have proposed significant modifications to the process, notably the creation of an appellate panel of faculty and administrators drawn up after discussion with the union that would be called on to hear any appeals, at arm’s-length from the Office of the Provost where the EOAA process resides. Further, in addition to the two existing bases for appeal—process violations and new information not originally considered—we would expand the scope to include interpretations of University policy by an investigator that affected the outcome of the process, and an investigator’s conflict of interest or bias that impacted the outcome, both as new grounds for an appeal.

This substantial set of steps directly addresses the disquiet we have heard from the bargaining committee, and, indeed, from others across the University. To date, the response has been to reject this initiative on the ground that “no one at the university can be neutral,” which, in truth, whether intended or not, is something of an affront.

We agreed not to bargain over EOAA in the framework agreement and have proposed an article on Non-discrimination and Harassment very similar to what the Provost lauded in the postdoctoral contract. Yet, Columbia rejects this and would instead single out our union among all others on campus and force us to trust them and EOAA procedures. 

We have debated this at length and have been very clear that we need third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment complaints. A faculty panel is not a third-party. Nor does this faculty panel decide the sanctions or consequences of a complaint: those decisions are still entirely within the Columbia administration’s control. This new policy slightly widens the circumstances under which appeals are eligible. However, we still cannot appeal based on the decision of the investigator. We still cannot appeal based on the consequences or lack thereof that are implemented by Columbia. We still cannot appeal if EOAA dismisses a complaint without investigation. We still cannot appeal If EOAA investigates, but decides that even though the conduct was deplorable, it is outside their purview because there isn’t evidence it was due to a protected class.

In short, the Provost’s proposal on EOAA is not a compromise, it is a cop-out. 

To the Provost: We’re sorry you feel ‘affronted.’ But this is not about you. It’s about providing real recourse for our workers, so that when they file a complaint about discrimination and harassment, they know a third-party will weigh the evidence and provide legally binding judgement, and won’t have to rely on an appeals panel of people who are their abusers’ peers. 

Sooner or later, there will be agreement on a contract. Of course, sooner would be much better than later. The University will continue to work to that end. While we agree that reaching an overall agreement is past due and a matter of urgency, the University could do significantly more to expedite this process. For example, we have repeatedly heard that their response on Union Security is intentionally delayed to push us closer on economics. In addition, the issue of real recourse costs Columbia nothing at all, but they prioritize maintaining complete control over a flawed system, instead of allowing workers the protections afforded to every other union on campus. This stalemate over real recourse is months old. We have entertained excuse after excuse from Columbia and refuse to accept their weak argument that ‘this is not a benefit they want for students.’ Columbia should be doing all they can to combat discrimination and harassment, instead of denying us the dignity we deserve as workers.