While we continued our strike for the first contract with access to grievance and arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment, the Provost Ira Katznelson sent out an email on Wednesday, March 24, lauding their most recent proposal on the EOAA appeals process. We once again issue an annotated version of the Provost’s email to clarify our position at the bargaining table.

On a separate note, our next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday, March 30, at 3:30 PM ET. You can RSVP to attend the session via Zoom at this link.

What the Provost says

What the bargaining committee knows

One of the major subjects still in dispute—arguably the single most important issue outstanding—is the process that addresses claims of discrimination and harassment. The Union has proposed third party arbitration, arguing that our process is defective because it contains no option to appeal to a neutral third party. Last week, we suggested a revised appeals process based on a significant expansion to grounds of appeal beyond those already in place. That offer did not elicit agreement. If appeals are heard by faculty or administration members who are inside the University, the Union asserted, there may be at least the appearance and, many fear, the actual absence of neutrality. My inbox has been filled with eloquent statements of this position.

We have listened. Responding to this concern, I joined yesterday’s bargaining session to present a revised plan, one that would establish Columbia as a leader in this evolving area of workplace protections. Rather than have appeals heard, as they are now, by members of the Office of the Provost, or, as we proposed last week, by University faculty and administrators, we have now proposed an appeals panel composed of individuals with experience in higher education and/or employment law who are not part of the University to hear cases on a rotating basis. An advisory group with representatives from various constituencies, including GWC-UAW Local 2110, will provide input for the selection of this group.

This University proposal is directly responsive to the substantive core of the GWC-UAW request: “In order to provide a neutral, third-party review of EOAA findings and recommendations, the University will establish a pool of independent Appellate Officers.” Opening this way, the proposal describes the appellate procedures and the scope of appeals. In all, it tells who these persons are, how they will be chosen, how they are to adjudicate, and on what basis appeals can be offered. This submission represents a great enhancement, offering means to achieve the goals articulated by the GWC-UAW. Once in place, Columbia would have a more compelling process. That would be a great achievement for us all.

Neutrality is just one of the reasons we are pushing for 3rd party neutral arbitration. Other reasons that are not addressed include:

  • In arbitration, the union would have access to the evidence. In EOAA appeals, there is no hearing, no testimony, used to inform the Appeal Officer about the case. The right to information, including the ability to review evidence and the investigator’s report, is a critical difference between arbitration and the EOAA appeal.
  • There are significant limitations on what can be appealed within EOAA. For example, you cannot contest the facts or the evidence. An arbitrator reviews the underlying merits of a claim, including contested facts.
  • There are significant restrictions on the ability to request an appeal in EOAA process: complainants are not allowed to record their interviews with investigators, they are not provided with all the evidence in the case used to make determinations, they are not provided with the investigative report, and they can only write five pages double spaced to establish facts, relevance, and make arguments in their request for an appeal.
  • During the grievance and arbitration process, the union can request a remedy that is considered by the arbitrator. There is no opportunity to advocate similarly in the EOAA appeals process. 
To be sure, a question lingers—why not agree to the demand for third party arbitration? The University’s objections are not matters of principle. After all, such arbitration was included in the postdoc UAW contract and in other union contracts for University employees. Current bargaining, however, is distinctive given the unique status of graduate students. At times of their assignment, graduate students become graduate workers, employees. At other times, they simply are students. A contract will govern the first but not the second temporal moment. Thus there could be many instances characterized by a deep lack of clarity, charged with ambiguity. Did the alleged behavior happen when the student was on assignment? In a work setting? Or not? There could be many disputes. Surely a process that only covers work settings is far from ideal. This side-steps our reasonable argument with one extremely flawed argument: that because graduate workers come in and out of the bargaining unit it would be difficult to manage both when an arbitrator can be called, and what evidence should be considered.  Delineation of the applicability of arbitration is something that can also be considered as part of the contract dispute. As for the relevance of evidence, arbitrators have to decide this all the time. Surely the University and the Union would both agree to an arbitrator who would be capable of thoughtfully exploring these nuances. 
By contrast, the alternative we have put forward would not be limited to persons in the role of student worker. The procedures for appeal will govern all EOAA adjudications across the University. There has been nothing stopping the university from making improvements to the EOAA process AND agreeing to third-party neutral arbitration for employees. In fact, we would welcome it! Improvements to the EOAA process might mean that fewer cases would make it to arbitration, as they might be resolved equitably through that process. However, that is not a given, and arbitration is essential to ensuring that members of our unit have the protections they need. 
If we settle this pivotal matter, we should be able to conclude negotiations quickly. That brings me to my second point. The current mode of bargaining, fashioned by our interlocutors for the normatively appealing goal of transparency, has become counterproductive. Each session is attended by a University bargaining team, the GWC-UAW bargaining team, and tens of other participants, sometimes some two hundred, who join on Zoom. This arrangement makes a focused give and take difficult. After two years, we have reached a point in our negotiations—the end game, hopefully—that requires a meaningful back and forth between parties. The Union is committed to open bargaining and it has not impeded the 20+ tentative agreements that we have made prior to this. We look forward to productive conversations with the University in the coming sessions. 
The University, I should like to underscore, is fully prepared to swiftly complete an agreement, which, like the postdoc contract, would be a win for the Union and a win for the University. We look forward to a fair contract, with similar access to grievance and arbitration as postdoctoral workers.