How much are membership dues and when do we start paying?

Dues are important to any union because they provide the financial resources necessary to equalize power with the employer. But we have democratic control of when graduate employees start paying GWC-UAW membership dues. Under UAW policy, graduate employees will not pay any dues until after a bargaining committee WE elect successfully negotiates a contract with Columbia and WE vote to approve that contract.

After a contract is in place, union members in Local 2110 will pay just 2% of our gross income in dues during semesters when we have jobs covered under the contract. The monetary value of benefits such as healthcare premiums and tuition remission is exempt from dues under the UAW Constitution—in other words, if we negotiate better health benefits or increased fee waivers, the value of those improvements does not increase your dues.

Will all of us be required to be members of the Union and pay dues or fees?

No one can be required to become a member of the Union after we have a contract. But since the Union is legally obligated to represent all of us, and all of us would receive the benefits of the contract, we can have an arrangement where non-members are required to pay a comparable “fair share” fee so the cost of representation is shared equally. But this would be something we decide as part of our bargaining agenda and would be subject to negotiation with Columbia.

Most graduate worker Unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have the most resources available to maintain a strong relationship with the administration.

How is the dues money allocated? What is it used for?

Local 2110 keeps at least half of overall dues money, which it uses to represent members in grievance handling, contract negotiations, and various other activities. Depending on the overall health of the UAW Strike Fund, the local generally receives additional money from the Strike Fund, called a “rebate”, to help with the local’s day-to-day responsibility of taking care of its members and means that typically Local 2110 keeps more than half of dues. Members may examine regular financial reports showing how dues money is spent.

The remaining dues money, which goes to the International Union, pays for services that also benefit members at the Local level.  Prior to any “rebate,” 32 percent goes into the Strike and Defense Fund, which gives us leverage in bargaining because the University would know we have the capacity to strike if that ever became necessary.  The remaining 18 percent goes toward various activities and support services of the UAW that benefit local unions across the US, including ours.  For example, dues money pays for the following:

  • Technical support for contract negotiations:
    • Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
    • Civil rights experts who can advise on the best contract language for protections against discrimination and sexual harassment
    • Health and safety experts to help make sure the contract maximizes employees’ ability to ensure a safe work environment under the contract
    • Financial analysts to help understand University budgets
    • Legal advice where necessary
    • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals in bargaining, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall contract campaign
  • Technical support and experienced staff to help train and work with stewards to have an effective program for handling grievances when they occur after we have won our first contract
  • Auditors to help local unions keep their books in good order, so they can stay accountable to members
  • Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the organizing staff and legal support for the GWC-UAW campaign is paid for by existing UAW members’ dues money)
  • Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]

Why be part of the United Auto Workers?

The UAW represents 50,000 university workers across the US, including research and teaching assistants, postdocs, contingent faculty, and support staff.  This includes 35,000 RAs and TAs at New York University, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, University of Washington,University of California, and California State University.  The UAW also represents support staff at Columbia, Barnard and Teachers College, and contingent faculty at Barnard College, NYU and The New School.

By joining with the UAW, we gain valuable resources and experience from years of successful organizing and bargaining campaigns.  UAW members have committed resources that helped graduate workers win a 16-year campaign at the University of California and have stood behind graduate workers at NYU since 1998.  We also gain a stronger political voice on issues that affect our lives and futures, such as federal research funding, immigration reform, student debt, gender equity, and civil rights.

We also join a vibrant community of fellow UAW members in New York City beyond higher education, including Legal Aid attorneys, Legal Services attorneys and paralegals, freelance writers, journalists, museum workers, auto dealership technicians, and many others.

We have won many improvements in the last two years.  Why do we need a union?

By joining together across campus, we have shown that Columbia can do better on the compensation and benefits we receive in exchange for the important research and teaching work we provide.  However, without collective bargaining, the Columbia administration continues to have the ability to make unilateral changes whenever it wants.  If our benefits were protected in a union contract, for example, the administration could not have made cuts to our health and dental benefits for this academic year.

What have unionized RAs and TAs won at other universities?

You can check out some examples of the positive effects of collective bargaining on the contract gains section of our website.

If we unionize, does our status changes from students to employee?

If the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules in our favor, it means we would be considered “employees” for the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This would mean if a majority votes yes to be represented by GWC-UAW in a NLRB-supervised union representation election, Columbia would have a legal obligation to recognize and bargain with us as a union. Currently, Columbia does not have a legal obligation to respect a majority democratic decision by graduate employees to engage in collective bargaining and the administration has put great effort and resources into keeping it that way. NYU has voluntarily agreed to bargain with the union there even though it has no legal obligation to do so. To your broader question, the NLRB decision has no determinative effect on any other parts of the law as to whether we are “employees” (see question on IRS law/FICA taxes).

Does our stipend becomes a wage? and if so, will it become taxable for FICA taxes? As of right now, our stipend is considered taxable income but we get an exemption from paying FICA (which is currently 7.65%: SS 6.2% and Medicare 1.45%) because we are students and not employees.

The NLRB decision has no determinative effect on FICA or other rules of the IRS. You can read the IRS “student exception” rule regarding FICA at Unions for graduate employees exist at more than 60 university campuses across the US, in many cases for several decades, and the “student exception” on FICA has existed side-by-side with those unions and continues to do so. The “student exception” would only go away if the IRS changes its rules. The NLRB decision would have no determinative legal bearing on IRS rules. As far as “stipend becoming a wage” more generally, again, the NLRB determination has no bearing. As an example, NRSA Training Grant recipients are represented by the Union at the University of Washington. Their training grant stipend, per NIH rules, is still distributed as a “stipend” (meaning no tax withholdings –FICA OR income tax—at the time of payment by the University, per NIH guidelines) The upside of the Union and the contract at UW is that, despite the University’s efforts to deny coverage in a number of cases, Trainees now clearly qualify for workers compensation if they are injured at work—you can read about it on the Union’s website (scroll down to the section entitled “Health & Safety and Workers Compensation).

What is the amount of stipend increase the union is trying to negotiate with the university? The union says an ‘increase in wages’, ‘increase in stipend’ and compares it to the increase in wages obtained by the NYU students after they unionized. My stipend is ~$37,000. What is the expected average increase of stipend we would obtain if we unionize?

Specific bargaining demands would be developed through a democratic, participatory process involving surveys, electing a bargaining committee and voting to approve an initial bargaining agenda. The actual results of bargaining depend on how much power we develop in the process and on graduate employees voting to ratify those results as our first contract.

As an empirical example on pay increases, the union at NYU negotiated a 38% increase in stipend minimums in their first contract in 2001-02. Many Ivy campuses, Columbia included, quickly raised stipends to match those negotiated at NYU. After years of organizing and bargaining at NYU, a PhD student in GSAS who teaches both semesters will earn nearly $38,000 for the upcoming nine-month academic year.

But ultimately, we will decide at Columbia how much to fight for in our own contract on pay versus health care and any other economic issues, not to mention critical non-economic issues like a grievance procedure, stronger protections against sexual harassment, workload protections for TAs, access to safe and adequate facilities to carry out our work, etc. Many people would be happy to have improved pay, especially in light of constant increases in our housing costs by Columbia, but also want a legally binding contract that protects against sexual harassment, that guarantees our health benefits so that the University cannot change them unilaterally like they can now, that has a fair grievance procedure so that all grad workers have a way to address problems and can take them to a neutral party—not a university administrator—if necessary. We can also fight for affordable dependent health insurance, University-subsidized dental and vision benefits, fair workload protections when we teach, and many other things, but obviously the bargaining committee would fight for whatever RAs and TAs democratically approved as our bargaining priorities.

What specific changes are you asking in our medical insurance?

GWC-UAW does not have a pre-fabricated bargaining agenda. It will be developed democratically as we move forward in the process. Many people have raised things like lower out-of-pocket costs on services, more affordable dependent coverage, more access to dental options (like the one the University just eliminated for next year), vision coverage, etc. Pretty typical concerns. Bottom line—the more people who sign up, fill out surveys and otherwise participate, the stronger and more representative our demands will be. What would you want to see improved in our health benefits?

What are some of the dental plans the union is looking at to get for students? What are their coverage, annual maximum, deductibles and applicable premiums?

See above question. The main complaint we have heard so far is that they restore the dental plan they just eliminated and negotiate for the University to pay the premium. NYU pays premiums for dental insurance for graduate employees and UMass (with far less resources than Columbia) has a very good dental plan.

What is the current vacation policy the union is pursuing? According to the collective bargaining contract struck by NYU student, graduate employee are entitled to either 2 or 1 paid vacation per each 26 weeks straight worked weeks (see below excerpt from their contract). This is significantly less than what I now normally get and this would severely limit the freedom I have right now to schedule my work.

NYU contract excerpt: ‘Graduate employees pursuing a doctorate who work twenty-six (26) consecutive weeks will be entitled to two (2) week’s paid vacation at their regular rate of pay. All other graduate employees who work twenty-six (26) consecutive weeks will be entitled to one (1) week’s paid vacation at their regular rate of pay. Scheduling of vacation is subject to supervisory approval. Approval shall not unreasonably be withheld.

At NYU, the graduate employees represented by the union were starting from a point of having NO vacation. For them, the contract provision was a meaningful improvement. Also, the union at NYU does not represent RAs/Trainees who work in labs, which is a different context. This is the reason we will determine our bargaining agenda locally—the language at NYU may very well not make sense here at Columbia. As another example, where lab RAs and Trainees ARE included in the union, look at the vacation provision at the University of Washington. We may not want to have the exact same provision, but this one is probably more relevant to Columbia. At UW, some RAs were permitted by their PIs to take vacation before the contract, but some were not. The contract ensures a “minimum” of four weeks per calendar year for EVERYONE, which they obviously voted to approve. It does not place limits on how much time one can take for vacation.

How much of our dues goes to political activities vs actual collective bargaining, negotiations, and grievances?

Less than three percent of the total Local Union membership dues money goes toward political action.  Since the law prohibits using this subset of dues money for candidate contributions in the vast majority of cases (money for candidate contributions is raised through separate voluntary contributions, beyond dues, specifically for that purpose), these resources go toward legislative activities and work toward achieving policy improvements that matter to our membership locally and nationally.

As examples, the GWC-UAW campaign and the UAW nationally put a lot of effort this past year into supporting increasing the OPT STEM extension—you can read generally about the OPT issue on our website and the Union’s comments on the rule change by USCIS here.  The OPT issue is important, since a significant number of the more than 35,000 UAW graduate workers across the US are international students who would like to stay and work in the US after graduation and OPT is one of the few legal options available.  The Union has also done a lot of work on advocating for increased federal funding of science research – you can read about the GWC-UAW campaign around it here, the University of California postdoc union campaign around it here during the sequester and the UAW national position on the issue here.. The Union nationally, and the UC postdoc union in particular, also put a lot of effort into supporting the new Department of Labor rule on overtime, which has a huge potential impact on the lives of postdocs.  Unfortunately, university administrators across the US have been fighting implementation of this new rule, even though it is supported by not only the US Dept of Labor, but also Francis Collins at the NIH.

Does the belonging to an union have any conflict with the responsibilities of having an F31 grant by the NIH?