On December 11th, in the wake of a contentious vote to accept the University’s offer to bargain on the condition that we sign away our right to strike until 2020, the members of the organizing committee of the Graduate Workers of Columbia put aside their differences and came together to map out a plan for democratic bargaining. In a near-unanimous vote of 27 to one, the Organizing Committee endorsed open bargaining as our strategy for negotiating a contract with the management of Columbia University.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s actually huge. Open bargaining means all GWC members have the right to attend every single bargaining session. Absent a strike, it is our (no longer secret) weapon to ensure that the negotiations become a site where we can exercise our social power so that the bosses concede to our legitimate needs as University workers.
Open bargaining gives us a home court advantage, allowing us to bring our key source of leverage as workers–—our numbers—to the bargaining table. In competitive sports, a home game can mean the difference between winning and losing for the home team. Open bargaining suggests a move “away from the habit of relying on individual relationships, and toward relying on collective power.” By rejecting closed-door, secret meetings, every one of us can directly participate in bargaining over the issues we care about. Pressure inevitably builds on Columbia’s negotiators and lawyers who will have to grapple with an audience of hundreds of graduate workers and a remote audience of thousands of others scrutinizing their every move.
If, for example, they refuse to offer an appropriate grievance procedure with strong protections for victims of sexual harassment, we can see this with our own eyes and increase pressure at the bargaining table. We can also mobilize our members, other workers, and students to push management to concede.
But this approach is not only a confidence booster at the bargaining table, it also impacts Columbia’s management where they are most vulnerable: their need for positive PR. It’s a bad image to push back when our demands—for decent pay, for better working conditions, for smaller class sizes for our students, and for accountability against faculty that abuse their power—are entirely reasonable and just, and we know that an informed Columbia community will be on our side.
On February 6th and 7th, the whole unit of GWC will be holding an internal vote to elect new members of our bargaining committee with five positions contested by a total of 12 candidates. I have personally chosen to support a slate of candidates running as the Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (C-AWDU) because they have been at the forefront of efforts to keep GWC leaders accountable during a bargaining process that is transparent and inclusive.
It is because of these efforts that the GWC is including a referendum on fully open bargaining during the upcoming vote. This will clarify exactly how committed we are to open negotiations. Supporting bargaining that is fully open means rejecting closed meetings (sidebars) between individuals from both sides and approving a ban on holiday/summer bargaining. This will be key to ensuring transparency during decision-making for all union members while also keeping the Columbia administration in check.
In recent years, a range of unions have negotiated successful contracts with open bargaining including CUPE 3903 of York University, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, University of California graduate workers, and GSOC at NYU.
However, the strongest evidence of the power of open bargaining comes from the Concord Teachers Association; former president Merrie Najimy advises that we should “never have conversation with management away from the table.”
This is because our power as a union is in our collective membership. With closed meetings, such as sidebars, we lose this power and allow the employer to manipulate one-on-one situations because our representatives are removed from the collective support of membership and the public. Najimy is unequivocal in her support of fully open bargaining: “I think it’s the most powerful way that we’ve ever bargained, and we won the best contract that we’ve ever won.”
Ultimately, open bargaining is not just about getting us a decent wage and benefits (though we remain underpaid in one of the richest universities in the world). It’s about recognizing that we as workers are part of a larger community of students and non-academic workers.
We need to ensure that a future contract builds towards the recognition that janitorial workers, clerical workers, grad workers, and students alike all suffer abuse in the workplace; we all need a better independent grievance procedure.
We also need to use open bargaining to scrutinize the Columbia administration’s misuse of billions of dollars, diverting money that should be spent on actual teaching onto real estate vanity projects such as The Forum.
Open bargaining helps us see that we’re all in this fight together to build a better University.
So, on February 6 and 7, I hope that GWC members will join me in voting yes to fully open bargaining. And when our Bargaining Committee sits down at the negotiating table at the end of the month, this will mean that they will be sitting there with hundreds of students and workers–including myself–behind them.
The author is a member of the Graduate Workers of Columbia. He is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies.
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