The tentative agreement reached between Columbia and the Graduate Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers’ bargaining committee failed to pass on April 30. Student-workers voted 1,093-970 with 63 percent participation from card-carrying union student workers to continue negotiating, a process that will likely require further mobilization throughout the summer and fall semesters.
Student-workers say that the contract fell short on unit recognition; compensation; health care; and access to third-party, neutral arbitration for discrimination and harassment cases. However, the no-vote was also considered a signal to the union’s current leadership. Complaints about the democracy of the bargaining committee have been simmering for years, but the process leading to this contract’s presentation has student-workers rejecting not only the contract but their own union’s configuration.
“While we recognize the urgency of having the protections of a union contract, student workers have demonstrated their dedication to continue fighting for a contract we deserve. We will not quit,” the bargaining committee said in a statement.
The University has been bargaining with the GWC-UAW for over two years and more than 70 negotiating sessions have come and gone. With the surprise no-vote, student-workers are sending Columbia and the GWC-UAW back to the bargaining table.
“We are disappointed that GWC-UAW members did not approve the Agreement that the two bargaining committees worked so hard to achieve,” Vice President of Human Resources Dan Driscoll said in a statement. “We believe the Agreement is fair and addresses all of the issues set out by the Union, including changes to the EOAA process, increases in compensation and improvements in benefits such as healthcare support and child care.”
The bargaining committee, a ten-person representative body that is elected by all voting members of the union, had recommended the contract in a 7-3 vote. Miles Richardson, a bargaining committee member who voted in favor of ratification, said that some members of the bargaining committee were hoping for unit support.
“We were cautiously optimistic [for a yes-vote], but I think we’ve learned from this campaign that nothing is sure until it actually happens,” Richardson said. “We’ve learned from that not to be too overconfident in the results.”
The three dissenting bargaining committee members—Joanna Lee, Lilian Coie, and Tristan du Puy—and a movement of rank-and-file members campaigned against the contract. According to research done by Lee, a graduate student union has never before rejected a tentative agreement.
Members of the no-vote movement were shocked to have won. On the night of the vote, they had 700 confirmed no-votes. Niccolò Bigagli, a fourth-year doctoral student in the physics department, helped organize for the no-vote movement with in-person canvassing in front of Joe’s Coffee at the Northwest Corner Building and Dear Mama at the Zuckerman Institute. Along with other union members, he handed out flyers and spoke with student-workers as they stood in line for coffee or received their lunch, while others inquired at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center labs.
“Something that we did that was useful was we managed to get people to sign union cards on the spot,” Bigagli said. “It really helped bring out the vote because there is that potential barrier.”
Eligible members must fill out union cards in order to vote. During the ratification period, from Wednesday, April 21 at 9 a.m. to Friday, April 30 at 5 p.m., 407 new members joined the GWC-UAW to cast a ballot.
Some rank-and-file members like Becca Roskill, SEAS ’22, who is a teaching assistant in computer science and research assistant in economics, were more adamant about protesting the “structural issues” within the union than the concrete aspects of the contract––which did not afford student-workers third-party, neutral arbitration; the union’s $45,285 estimate of a living wage; full recognition of the bargaining unit; or full dental coverage.
The move to enter into federal mediation on April 2 was highly controversial. The bargaining committee voted 7-3 to pause the strike, which had lasted for three weeks beginning on March 15. The committee members did so without formal consultation with the rank-and-file members. GWC-UAW student-workers Amelia Spooner, Lexie Cook, and Katryn Evinson filed a complaint with UAW, alleging that the bargaining committee’s vote to pause the strike violated the UAW Constitution and Ethical Practice Codes.
Spooner, who is a fourth-year doctoral student in the history department, and other student-workers are filing another complaint on Monday, this time regarding the ratification vote process. The complaint includes concerns over the deliberation period, which was 36 hours; a typographical error in the compensation clause during the first two days of voting; miscommunication about who would be included in the unit; restrictions on access to GWC-UAW communication channels; and one-sided messaging and language on the ballot.
“This is a moment where the rank-and file-exercised their democratic right to vote and made it really clear what it is that they wanted, in spite of overwhelming messaging in one direction, in spite of what I consider to be an undemocratic move of putting a recommendation in only one direction on the ballot,” Lee said. “In spite of that, workers have made their voices heard. We have to listen to that mandate and go forward from there.”
Harlan Chambers, a rank-and-file member and sixth-year doctoral student in the department of East Asian languages and cultures, organized for the no-vote, but said he was originally ready to accept the contract. However, what he considered to be both an “unacceptable contract” and an “illegitimate” bargaining process ultimately pushed him to vote against ratification.
“I would have accepted the results very differently had the process been a transparent, open process,” Chambers said. “It’s not just about winning my political position. It’s about the way that the positions are being determined and the extremely unethical practices, which keep getting repeated through the union.”
Chambers is also an adjunct instructor at New York University, whose union is currently on strike, and said the consequences for peer graduate student unions also convinced him to vote against ratification. With labor organizing at private universities gaining traction, each one of GWC-UAW’s contract articles would set a precedent for other student-workers across the country, and vice versa.
GWC-UAW’s tentative agreement, for example, offered a two percent raise and an additional one percent lump sum for doctoral students on appointment in their first year. They would have received a three percent raise each year for the next two years of the contract.
“As NYU continues to negotiate, our contract can no longer be a bad precedent because it doesn’t exist,” Spooner said. “It’s really wonderful to hear from our comrades at NYU that they can show up to bargaining tomorrow and say, ‘Nope, you can’t use that contract against us anymore,’ which [the NYU administration] was already doing in bargaining.”
The path forward is unclear, but there are already strong calls for a reconfiguration of the bargaining committee. Rank-and-file members are pushing for current bargaining committee members to resign or to rerun in elections that would take place this summer.
“The contract that they ‘negotiated’ was roundly rejected by the membership. They have no mandate. They must step down,” Danielle Carr, a rank-and-file member and sixth-year doctoral student in the anthropology department, said.
To strengthen the democracy of the union, student-workers say they are further calling to codify union bylaws in the hopes of including recall procedures for elected representatives. A more immediate campaign, however, will be to secure the $1,000 COVID-19 summer stipends that the contract would have given student-workers if it had been ratified.
Now that the contract is vetoed, student-workers have delayed their rights to the contract’s protections. There is no guarantee that the University will give more concessions or even offer the same protections in the next contract iteration. If there is no movement over the summer, student-workers are already preparing for the possibility of a strike authorization vote in the fall.
“We have elements that we can draw from now to build a mass union and a mass democratic project through the union, not against it,” Chambers said. “It’s not going to be easy moving forward. It’s going to be extremely difficult, but I think we have a real fighting chance. If this contract had been ratified, it’s hard to imagine how that would have been possible.”