Grateful but Undeterred

Columbia U announces major pay increases for graduate student workers ahead of a major NLRB decision on their union eligibility. The would-be union is happy but says collective bargaining is still the way forward.

July 21, 2016

Columbia University has awarded graduate student workers an unprecedented pay increase ahead of a major decision regarding the students’ union eligibility.

The decision, expected from the National Labor Relations Board some time this summer, involves Columbia students but has implications for would-be graduate student unions at private institutions nationwide.

In an email to graduate students, John H. Coatsworth, Columbia’s provost, announced a multiyear compensation adjustment for teaching and research assistants -- including at least a 3.75 percent increase in Ph.D. student stipends in arts and sciences departments and a series of professional schools in the fall. Additional bumps of at least 3 percent are expected in the three subsequent years, through 2019.

Stipends in medical center programs will increase at rates determined by each school, based on guidelines set by the National Institutes of Health.

“These changes are the result of discussions with the Graduate Student Advisory Council and other student groups who highlighted the importance of advance notice of stipend levels to assist students in financial planning and budgeting,” Coatsworth said.

Columbia’s move follows other recent improvements to graduate students’ working conditions and compensation as they seek union recognition. In May, echoing calls from unions, Columbia announced a $15 minimum wage for all student workers. Coatsworth said in his email that the minimum wage will be $12 this fall, increasing to $15 by 2018. The university also has announced broader access to paid parental leave, larger child-care subsidies and expanded fee waivers.

Coatsworth said his office also is finalizing a new policy ensuring that postdoctoral fellows have access to affordable, subsidized health care, effective in January.

“We look forward to continuing these collaborative efforts to make sure Columbia is a place where our students, faculty and staff can achieve the highest levels of both intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment,” he said.

Columbia, along with its Ivy League peers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, have formally opposed the notion that graduate student workers are employees when it comes to their right to unionize. That’s the question the NLRB will soon weigh in on, and over which it’s historically flip-flopped.

Currently, an NLRB decision dating back to 2004 and concerning graduate student workers at Brown University says that graduate students on private campuses do not have the right to form unions. Public institutions are subject to state labor laws.

Graduate Workers of Columbia University still wants to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers, regardless of the university’s recent actions in their favor.

“We’re proving that Columbia University can -- and does -- do better when we come together to make our departments and schools more inclusive and accessible places to work,” Paul Katz, a union supporter and Ph.D. candidate in history, said in a statement. “We’ve made some tremendous progress, and with our union we’ll be able to work together to make Columbia the strongest university possible.”


Back to Top