In his email of December 1, 2016, the Provost clearly wants us to believe that collective bargaining will not be effective, so that we turn down our historic opportunity to enhance our ability to make Columbia better.  We trust the evidence, and the judgement of the more than 12,000 academic workers – RAs, TAs, postdocs and adjunct faculty – who have joined the UAW in just the last six years because collective bargaining has been effective.  

Questions raised by the Provost:

  • “Will increases beyond already-announced stipend hikes be larger than the cost of union dues—likely 2% of income—that must be paid by every member of the bargaining unit?”

Tens of thousands of RAs, TAs, postdocs and adjunct faculty have negotiated successful contracts with improvements — both economic and non-economic — that majorities voted to ratify because they felt the improvements were “worth” paying dues to maintain effective long term representation.  As examples,  the first NYU contract included a 38% increase to minimum stipends, and the first UConn contract in 2015 included a total compensation increase (stipend increases plus new fee waivers) of nearly 7% per year for the average graduate assistant.  Moreover, graduate workers have used dues resources effectively to engage in effective representation, as you can see in this helpful summary of grievance successes at the University of Washington and in this story about how the graduate assistant UConn is taking on sexual harassment.

  • “How does the UAW propose to overcome existing constraints on University resources? Through reducing financial aid or making other cuts to the budget? By recommending tuition increases?”

Union advocates have never proposed anything but a fair system where we elect representatives who bargain as equals over our pay and benefits, just like RAs and TAs at more than 60 university campuses across the US and like hundreds of employees right here at Columbia, all of whom work within the constraints of existing “University resources.”  

  • “Will a one-size-fits-all union contract capture the differences between the goals sought, for example, by a doctoral candidate in the humanities versus one pursuing an Engineering Ph.D.? A seat at the table is important but will one seat, occupied by a UAW representative, be sufficient for all student assistants?”

Columbia is not unusual when it comes to the number or variety of departments that employ RAs and TAs.  The University of Washington, for example, has as much variety — a large medical school, engineering college, humanities, social sciences and professional schools — and the 19-member bargaining committee there has had no trouble at all negotiating great contracts that work for all of those constituencies.  We are confident we can do the same if Columbia bargains in good faith.

  • “What is the likelihood of a strike, perhaps one in solidarity with other colleges or universities, that prevents lab access and disrupts research in progress?”

As union supporters from the medical center pointed out last week, strikes during contract negotiations are quite rare, but graduate workers and postdocs have responsibly and democratically used the possibility of strikes ranging from the University of California system to University of Washington to NYU to negotiate successful contract without striking.  In the rare cases where strikes have occurred, participation is an individual choice and no one has ever reported being unable to get into the lab or make academic progress.

  • “Are union representatives prepared to accommodate points of view among its student membership that differ from those of the union’s leadership, such as on the matter of H-1B visas?”

We have already worked effectively with the top UAW leadership on policy issues that matter to us, like last year when the GWC-UAW international student working group and the national UAW leadership advocated for the Optional Practical Training STEM extension, a critical program that enables international students to work in the US after graduation.

With 60,000 academic workers across the US, the UAW has become a committed ally on issues that directly affect graduate students and other academic workers, such as expanding opportunities for international students to work in the US after graduation and maintaining federal investment in science research funding.

For example, not only does the UAW does not oppose H1B and other similar existing short-term opportunities (like OPT), it has also become a strong advocate for “no limits on employment-based green cards” for international graduates of US universities. This would provide greater flexibility and more long-term workplace protections for international workers.

  • “Will the uninhibited debate on our campus be diminished by union-led negotiations that, in other settings, have elevated the most strident voices?”

Academic studies have already answered this question: unionization does not impact academic freedom. Indeed, scholars have found that “union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay.”  The NLRB also answered this question clearly in August.