With masks on and drums beating, student-workers formed a picket line on Monday at 116th Street and Broadway and along College Walk to mark the first day of their strike. The in-person demonstration was only a fraction of the strike, as the over 3,000 members of Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers––some of whom are dispersed because of the pandemic––also sent communication blasts and shut down Zoom classes worldwide.
This moment is the culmination of two years of unsuccessful negotiations with Columbia for the union’s first labor contract. The strike will continue indefinitely until the University and GWC-UAW bargaining committee reach an agreement on the seven open articles still remaining. The largest issue left to resolve, however, is not any one proposal in particular, but a general tension that has prolonged negotiations since the beginning— the question of where to draw the line between a student’s education and the labor they provide the University. Columbia and the union will need to agree on what makes students workers, and from there, what benefits they should receive.
“For the things that arguably don’t cost the University money, when they deny us those demands, they deny us dignity, and for the economic asks, they deny us literally the material conditions we need to live a livable life in New York City,” GWC-UAW bargaining committee member Steven Lazickas said. “They pay us starvation wages, so they’re denying us a healthy life and they’re denying us dignity. And that’s why we’re going on strike.”
The University and GWC-UAW bargaining committee have so far committed to two days this week for bargaining negotiations.
The issues left to debate are how much to increase salaries and hourly rates; which hourly workers to include in the bargaining unit; the consequences for eligible students of not paying union dues; if workers will have access to a neutral arbitration process for discrimination and harassment case appeals; the size of an emergency medical support fund; and whether the University should pay for various fees and tuition waivers and a one-year funding extension for all students pursuing a doctorate.
“We are committed to continuing to work toward a full and fair contract and remain confident of that outcome, notwithstanding this unnecessary and unfortunate work stoppage,” a University spokesperson said in a statement. “Our top priorities now are supporting our undergraduates’ completion of their coursework, ensuring on-time graduation, and facing the ongoing challenges for the University posed by the pandemic.”
Why bargaining has taken two years
The central tension underlying all seven open articles is a problem unique to graduate student unions––members are both students and workers. Both Columbia and GWC-UAW have made opposing claims as to which populations should be classified as members of the bargaining unit, and the difference has important consequences.
This distinction shapes what conversations the University is obligated to bargain over, what rights members are entitled to according to the federal government, and what boundaries GWC-UAW has in protecting its bargaining unit.
The argument has played out in securing health benefits, as the University has claimed that it is not obligated to bargain over student health insurance plans, but the union had advocated for coverage as employees of the University. In 2019, Columbia ended the 100 Plan—a popular student health care plan—so GWC-UAW members had originally been advocating for a new health insurance option that would also cover vision and dental care. GWC-UAW bargaining committee member Miles Richardson, who helps lead health care negotiations, said the union has recently begun arguing for a $250,000 emergency medical fund instead.
“The brick wall that had faced the health care team, before I even joined, was that the University said, categorically, no––health care, you get because you’re a student, therefore we will not talk about it at all,” Richardson said. “We had to approach it from every single possible angle. We have kind of broken down that wall, to an extent, where the University has agreed to explicitly mention some benefits, but the issue fundamentally is that we’re hemmed in because they don’t want to create a separate health care plan for us.”
The University has an economic interest in excluding students from the bargaining unit. Up until earlier this month, it only recognized doctoral students and did not recognize master’s students and undergraduate teaching assistants. These students, unlike doctoral students, pay tuition, which the University had argued made their labor part of their paid educational experience.
Now, the University proposes recognizing the entirety of GWC-UAW’s bargaining unit as certified by the National Labor Relations Board, with the exception of hourly students working less than 15 hours per week. This union proposes excluding hourly workers who work less than 10 hours per week. Because overwhelming precedent does not exist for either number––the University says it is following NLRB voting eligibility guidelines, whereas the union did research to suggest that some hourly students are assigned 10-hour work weeks––the sides are stonewalled over exactly who qualifies as a worker.
Inextricable from this decision is the issue of compensation. The University has indicated that the more people the union argues to include in the bargaining unit, the less money each person will receive. Over the course of the three-year contract, the University is offering a 2 percent annual increase in minimum total support. In a side letter, the University will commit to raising the minimum wage to $17 per hour in the fall and $18 per hour by next fall.
Student-workers say that an increase is not enough. Will Glovinsky, a seventh-year doctoral candidate in the English and comparative literature department, has been organizing with GWC-UAW since he first arrived on campus and participated in the 2018 GWC-UAW strike that demanded the start of bargaining negotiations. He said organizing has consistently won rights for GWC-UAW, even when the University labels its demands as unrealistic.
“A 2 percent wage increase would basically be eaten up by inflation, and then we would also be paying union dues on top of that, which are 2 percent,” Glovinsky said. “What the administration is asking us to accept right now would effectively be a wage cut, so that’s insulting, and we need a deal that will give us a real, meaningful increase.”
The union is calling for a 5 percent minimum compensation rate increase for the first year, then a 4 percent increase for each of the two following years. The bargaining committee also hopes to win a $28 hourly rate for graduate students and a $22 hourly rate for undergraduate students.
Shakti Castro, a second-year doctoral student in the history department, said the wage increase is necessary in lieu of more comprehensive child care reform. Castro has a two-year-old daughter, and she said that although the union managed to increase child care subsidies from $2,000 to $4,000, student-parents are still not supported nearly enough. Columbia does not have on-campus, subsidized child care facilities, and with a dependent, she currently must pay $700 in dental insurance a year.
“In the absence of that kind of support, that’s why we need a living wage. To get us somewhere closer to where we can afford to cobble together some kind of care, where we’re not choosing between paying for some part-time care or fixing our child’s teeth,” Castro said.
The University points to the pandemic as causing unusually straining economic pressures that prevent greater flexibility. By its estimates, the union proposals cost $29 million more than what the University currently proposes. Even though the union had cut $11 million from its proposals in a final hope of reaching an agreement on Sunday, the University said the union numbers are still too high to merit productive bargaining.
During a bargaining session on Friday, interim Provost Ira Katznelson said that the University—with an operating budget of $5 billion and having lost $700 million this year—is unable to bargain over such large economic differences.
“As I said to the bargaining committee on Friday, what we are offering regarding compensation is not optimal, but, in present conditions, fair,” Katznelson wrote in an email to the Columbia community on Monday. “After all, across the University, faculty and staff have had to forego any wage increase for a year, a limitation graduate students did not experience as their stipend increase was set and announced for 2020-21 before the wage freeze was put into effect.”
On the topic of fees and tuition waivers, the University has said that because they relate to the strikers’ experiences as students rather than workers, they are not bargainable topics. Even so, the administration has been speaking with GWC-UAW about funding extensions in an effort to reach a verbal commitment.
This question of student and employee roles extends beyond economic concerns. The union is calling for neutral arbitration in discrimination and harassment case appeals in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. The right to third-party arbitrators was won by Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-United Auto Workers last year, but the University has maintained that GWC-UAW student-workers do not need that right.
The University counter-proposed with the formation of a new pool of faculty appellate officers, selected in conjunction with GWC-UAW, that can hear EOAA appeals. The University team also suggested creating a University-wide working group with representatives from GWC-UAW that give Columbia recommendations on issues of power-based harassment, which is currently unprotected in EOAA. Although GWC-UAW agrees these are steps in the right direction, it claims the University is again addressing bargaining unit members as students, not workers, in denying them third-party arbitrators.
“The big issue that they have, and I think they even verbatim said it, they’re like, ‘We don’t want an arbitrator involved with students.’ At the same time, that’s true for everything else in the contract,” Richardson said. “And we’re also not students––we’re student-workers. They know that they don’t have a good reason at this point. They just don’t want to do it.”
When Columbia and GWC-UAW finally reach an agreement on how to approach the unclear status of student-workers, it will have implications for all graduate student unions. GWC-UAW is a historically significant union, overturning the law in 2016 that paved the way for graduate students to unionize at private universities.
“We’ve all worked so hard on this, and it would be a pretty big victory––not just for us. In many ways we’re in a new moment for labor,” Susannah Glickman, a GWC-UAW organizer and fifth-year doctoral candidate in history, said. “It’s a good time to make gains, and every union win rebounds to other workers in other sectors.”
Eduardo Vergara Torres, a third-year doctoral candidate in the Latin American and Iberian cultures department, had to move back to Chile since being unable to afford rent on his Columbia-owned apartment in April. He remembers being an undergraduate and master’s student in Chile, where it was unthinkable to be considered a worker, and says the outcome of this bargaining agreement is important both here and abroad.
“Unionizing for graduate students is something very new in Chile,” Vergara Torres said. “It’s very hard to set up a movement like this one, but the fact that this is going forward in the U.S. is very important as a reference for the same movements abroad.”
In the immediate future, the University has committed to docking pay from striking student-workers and requiring them to repay lump sum financial aid stipends that were given at the beginning of the semester. In solidarity with GWC-UAW, undergraduate students set up a hardship fund for student-workers impacted financially by the strike. At the time of publication, the fund has amassed nearly $60,000.
Student-workers across the board say that they are seeing support coming from undergraduate students. Tim Lundy, a seventh-year doctoral candidate in the English and comparative literature department, is in his last semester at Columbia but is striking to make conditions better for incoming student-workers.
“Teaching means a great deal to me, and particularly in this year, it’s certainly a sacrifice to have to give up that face-to-face time with the students every week, but it is made easier by knowing that they are supportive of what we’re doing,” Lundy said.
GWC-UAW has not given an indication of when the strike will end. It all comes down to discussions in the coming days about the identity and make-up of the union, with all the financial complexities that go along with those decisions. Student-workers, however, say they are prepared to strike for as long as it takes to reach a fair contract.
“I haven’t seen any wavering from the people that I organize. We’re very well organized, and we’ve been working toward this for a while,” Glickman said. “We firmly believe, especially in the context of a pandemic, that building solidarity and building community are the same thing.”