Following almost two decades of back-and-forth for union recognition, Columbia announced its decision to negotiate with the Graduate Workers of Columbia in November 2018. Negotiations started in February 2019, proceeding the creation of a 10-point outline of the conditions for collective bargaining. Notably, the bargaining framework includes an impending deadline: a clause that prevents the union from striking until April 6, 2020.
With the April date right around the corner, both parties aim to make steady progress toward the contract before the strike deadline.
“We are confident that everyone engaged in this process wants to achieve a fair and productive contract. It is in no one’s interest to experience the kind of no-winner’s collision that took place at Harvard during the month of December,” a University spokesperson said in a comment to Spectator.
On Dec. 31 last year, Harvard’s union conducted one of the longest graduate student strikes in recent history following a failure to reach a contract with Harvard’s administrators. Although both parties met for 28 bargaining sessions and came to 12 tentative agreements, the union’s members voted to strike in October after not reaching an agreement on key bargaining issues such as compensation, health care, and a fair procedure for adjudicating sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.
Harvard and the union have yet to come to an agreement, and their next bargaining session will be overseen by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent, complementary agency that aims to promote cooperation between unions and management through mediation, according to its website.
Columbia also recently faced the impacts of a graduate student strike when GWC’s strike over union recognition in April 2018 resulted in dozens of moved or canceled classes. As the union and University verge on almost a year and over 10 bargaining sessions worth of negotiations, the two parties have only reached tentative agreements on five clauses, with over 30 clauses still in dispute.
“We would prefer to reach a collective bargaining agreement, a strong contract that advances our workplace protections through bargaining alone,” union bargaining committee member Batul Hassan said.
However, she later went on to add that if the University continues to fail to address core issues and not move at a reasonable pace of negotiation. “Our union will be ready to use our collective power. We’re fighting for each other, and our right to strike is returned to us in April.”
Similar to their Ivy peer, the union also cites some of its main points of contention as a lack of response to demands for stipend increases and improvements to health care plans. But Columbia cited limitations to increase expenditure in these areas, as it could threaten the University’s financial capacity in other areas—even necessitating tuition hikes.
Furthermore, the debate has been prolonged over what factors may be considered on the bargaining table. Both parties agreed prior to bargaining that the University retains sole discretion over any academic decision. While the union claims that Columbia should be more flexible in negotiating its definition of “academic,” the University has maintained its stance on what issues—including conduct that impacts the quality of teaching or research, and the failure to perform any assigned responsibilities—might fall under the category.
Among the principal demands of the union are increased compensation and a better health care plan. Currently, the Union has requested a $43,500 floor for all GSAS students, almost a 44 percent increase from the current stipend of $30,232.
The University has continued to push back on financial demands with the argument that tuition would rise for its student body. Tuition remains one of the largest sources of revenue for Columbia’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a governing structure that includes Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the School of the Arts, the School of Professional Studies, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
According to former NLRB chairman and professor of labor and discrimination law William B. Gould, he has never seen an instance of tuition hikes despite the common use of the claim by universities during negotiations. He also recommended that if such concerns existed, the union should be provided with exact calculations of the financial impacts the university would face.
“If a university says that these are the financial consequences, they have an obligation to prove it,” he said.
Columbia, however, also has a unique financial structure in comparison to a number of peer institutions. Tuition and donations flow to individual schools within the University—with the exception of Arts and Sciences—rather than to a central pot that is distributed. As a result, each school must negotiate its own ability to meet certain financial demands. The University has yet to present its own proposals for a majority of these economic demands.
“Academic” vs. “Non academic”
The pre-bargaining framework provides Columbia with control over all “academic” rights, which the University believes are conditions that allow graduate students to contribute to the mission of the research and academic institution. However, the union has argued that Columbia has overextended its influence over employment issues that are traditionally grounds on which a union may negotiate—such as workplace conditions and reasons for dismissal—by applying the “academic” label.
Issues like workload allocated to teaching assistants are examples in which the distinction between academic and employment rights are not so apparent. The union has pushed for the ability to set enrollment caps in their courses because even while a TA may have a maximum work week of 20 hours, an increasing number of students may force them to surpass that cap.
According to Hassan, the union has asserted that workplace rights hold a distinct place within negotiations despite unit members working within an academic institution.
“We are working in an academic institutions, but what we’re bargaining is on workplace protections which represent us as workers and Columbia as our employer.”
But while questions of the number of hours worked may traditionally be seen as employment issues reserved for negotiation, Columbia has also maintained that requirements and job descriptions of TAs are also central to the University’s ability to meet its academic mission.
According to Gould, there is no objective standard or metric to determine what might be an academic or nonacademic issue—these questions are still in active negotiation across the country.
“A lot of these don’t have a right answer,” Gould said. “A lot of this is for [the University and Union] to work out at collective bargaining.”
He also added situations like these are possible to avoid with more creative means. For example, increasing graduate workers’ compensation such that it reflects the extra hours worked would thereby evade the question of what may or may not fall under the purview of “academic.”
Grievance procedures for harassment and discrimination
In the midst of negotiations, the union has proposed more accessible and accelerated avenues through which graduate students can file complaints and undergo investigations. The issues on their mind: arbitration and discrimination and harassment cases.
In response, Columbia said that in order to implement the contract’s grievance and arbitration procedures, cases of discrimination and harassment would have to first be processed through the University’s EOAA procedures. The neutral arbitrator would then become an additional step in the grievance procedure. Citing federal Title IX law, which requires universities provide a resolution process that meets certain requirements, Columbia has also cited concerns that a third party arbitrator may violate the University’s legal obligations.
GWC countered the University’s position by demanding a three-step process for cases of sexual assault, which should last no more than seven calendar days per step. If the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action fails to arrive to a resolution by the end of the 30 days, then a neutral arbitrator will be appointed to manage the case. Harassment and discrimination cases would receive a expedited timeline.
The University and GWC have not yet reached a resolution, citing the need to consider more legal implications.