The Barnard contingent faculty union released a statement last Saturday warning Columbia’s graduate and postdoc unions against bargaining away their right to mobilize a strike authorization vote, citing their own experiences in negotiating a contract with Barnard two years ago.
Graduate student and postdoc unions ultimately did not conform to this advice and approved Columbia’s proposed framework last week, bargaining away their rights to strike until April 2020.
In February 2016, the Barnard administration agreed to negotiate with BCF-UAW over adjunct base pay, job security, and benefits. However, after months of largely fruitless negotiations and little progress according to BCFU committee bargaining members, the union voted to strike in December 2016, and proceeded to set a strike deadline for Feb. 21, 2017. Due to movements in the negotiation process, BCF-UAW did not move forward with the strike and a final contract was ratified on April 7, 2017.
The Barnard administration and the Barnard Contingent Faculty Union approved a contract after 12 months of exhaustive negotiations in April 2017, preventing an impending strike that would have otherwise impacted hundreds of students.
According to a statement from a Barnard spokesperson, the college was committed to negotiating in good faith towards a contract that addressed the needs of the entire Barnard community from the beginning of the negotiations process.
However, bargaining unit chairs and adjunct lecturers Siobhan Burke and Sonam Singh cited a grueling and prolonged year-long negotiation between the college’s hired negotiators from outside firm, Jackson Lewis, and the union. Burke and Singh said that outside negotiators diminished the unions’ complaints and failed to bargain in good faith.
“I’m pessimistic as to what the 14 months of negotiations will do to the mental health of the bargaining committee,” said Singh. “It was a psychological game on their side. … Even Barnard—kindly, feminist, progressive Barnard—brought in outside negotiators who would lecture us about how dispensable we were, how ridiculous our demands were, how we were asking for things that no one had.”
A strike authorization vote was the most important form of leverage the bargaining committee had in negotiating a contract and counteracting Barnard administration’s “bad-faith” negotiating, according to Singh.
“It was the single most important factor that allowed us to reach a contract,” said Singh. “Without it the bargaining committee process would have spun on for years. … I would not want to be in the position of the GWC bargaining committee having to bargain 14 months with no leverage.”
Burke echoed Singh’s sentiments and stated how no real progress in the negotiation occurred until BCFU set a strike deadline.
“I remember a point very much towards the end, we were getting very close to our strike deadline when suddenly they came through with this offer on payment for adjuncts,” said Burke. “It was unlike anything we had seen before, it was actually real progress.”
For graduate students and postdoctoral workers, a tense relationship with the United Auto Workers Union exacerbated the unions’ already complex and divided struggles with the University, leaving graduate workers feeling blindsided during the pre-bargaining framework construction process. While the GWC is in conflict with the national branch of the UAW, Barnard primarily dealt with president of the local 2110. Burke and Singh both stated that though they did not always see eye-to-eye with the 2110, their partnership was democratic.
However, former bargaining committee member and adjunct professor in English, Georgette Fleischer, described her own tumultuous experience with the 2110, which, according to her, ultimately led to her and six other adjunct faculty terminations. According to Fleischer, closed door conversations began to occur between administration, the 2110 president, and other members of the bargaining committee.
Post contract acceptance, an active proponent of the union, Fleischer, and six other faculty members were not rehired, an action in which the union alleges that the college failed to act “in good faith.”
“Somewhere along the line, when negotiations weren’t moving, the lawyer from the employer, the president of the local 2110, and certain members of the bargaining committee decided it was a good idea to have off the record conversations even though I was against having them at all,” said Fleischer. “I was specifically excluded from these conversations.”
For Singh, the pre-bargaining framework and its success is indicative of a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.
“[The pre-bargaining framework] was a power move by the administration, it’s not typical and it sets a bad precedent for other grad worker unions and unions in general that Columbia succeeded,” said Singh.