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GWC-UAW/Miles Richardson

Nearly five years after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate student workers at Columbia University were entitled to collective bargaining, the union there is still without a contract.

Today, union members are ending their second week on strike over stalled negotiations. Columbia has set up a system for teaching and research assistants to log in and affirm that they’re performing their duties. Those who don’t log in will be assumed to be on strike and go unpaid. If students were funded in a lump sum earlier in the term, their student accounts will be debited.

One major point of contention is contractual protections from discrimination and harassment. The union demanded that a third-party arbitrator be part of the complaint process, to ensure neutrality.

Columbia opposed arbitration prior to the strike. Last week, it offered to expand the grounds on which students may appeal university determinations in discrimination and harassment cases. It also said that appeals could be heard by faculty members and administrators instead of the provost’s office. The union deemed these protections insufficient. Some 200 faculty members urged the university to grant the neutral arbitration request, saying that it is not their role to adjudicate student complaints.

This week, Columbia proposed something that it said would make the university “a leader in this evolving area of workplace protections.” The offer involves having appeals heard by a panel of people with experience in higher education, but who are not affiliated with Columbia, on a rotating basis. An advisory group that includes representatives from the union would provide input on selecting panel members, the university said.

Interim provost Ira Katznelson said in a campus memo that, “Once in place, Columbia would have a more compelling process. That would be a great achievement for us all.”

Addressing the obvious question -- why not agree to the union’s demand for third-party arbitration -- Katznelson wrote that Columbia doesn’t object on principle, as unionized postdoctoral fellows and some other unionized employees have this in their contracts. But graduate students present a special case, as “at times of their assignment, graduate students become graduate workers, employees.” At other times, “they simply are students.”

“A contract will govern the first but not the second temporal moment,” Katznelson continued. “Thus there could be many instances characterized by a deep lack of clarity, charged with ambiguity. Did the alleged behavior happen when the student was on assignment? In a work setting? Or not? There could be many disputes. Surely a process that only covers work settings is far from ideal.”

To eliminate this ambiguity, Katznelson explained that the panel process would apply to all equal opportunity and affirmative action determinations on campus -- not just those involving union members.

The union attributes Columbia’s changing stance to the strike and to growing faculty support. And while this most recent proposal is a “step in the right direction,” the union said in a written update, it’s still “lacking.”

Under this proposal, the union explained, Columbia would retain final control over selection of the panel, the scope of appeals would be “much too limited” and the EEOA process does not address power-based intimidation or bullying. Other objections are that the process limits union involvement and “has many other areas that need improvement if Columbia wants to create meaningful change in addressing harassment and discrimination.”

Ludda Ludwig, a graduate student in earth and environmental sciences and a union bargaining committee member, said in a statement that she and her colleagues are "disappointed that over the past two years, the university has been unwilling to take meaningful steps to address discrimination, sexual harassment and assault." Referencing harassment cases at Columbia, Ludwig said the university seems "determined to keep the same structures in place that allowed professors like William Harris and Thomas Jessell to abuse young, predominantly female workers for decades. We demand access to a neutral arbitrator for our members, so their experiences may be heard by a panel that does not have a financial interest in the outcome."

Katznelson said in his message that if “we settle this pivotal matter, we should be able to conclude negotiations quickly.”

To that point, Katznelson also said he’s also concerned that the tone of negotiating sessions “has become counterproductive,” with as many as 200 union members joining in via Zoom.

“This arrangement makes a focused give and take difficult,” Katznelson said. “After two years, we have reached a point in our negotiations -- the end game, hopefully -- that requires a meaningful back and forth between parties.”

The university, he said, “is fully prepared to swiftly complete an agreement, which, like the postdoc contract, would be a win for the union and a win for the university.”

Contractual protections from discrimination and harassment have figured into contract negotiations for graduate student assistants at other private institutions since the precedent-setting NLRB case concerning Columbia, especially in the Me Too era.

But some Columbia union members felt that Katznelson’s message this week split hairs between the statuses of students and student workers and obscured other unsettled issues. Those include a pay increase to cover living expenses in one of the world’s most expensive cities -- the union wants graduate assistants on 12-month contracts to make $43,596 -- and whether student workers need to pay union dues.

The union also sought coverage for undergraduate and master’s student workers, to which the NLRB’s sweeping 2016 decision opened the door. Columbia initially opposed this but agreed. The two sides continued to disagree over which hourly workers are part of the union, however.

Columbia's United Auto Workers-affiliated union also wants COVID-19 relief for those graduate students who need it in the form of an additional year's funding.

Nancy Ko, a Ph.D. candidate in history and president of the Graduate History Association, said it’s “not until we reach an agreement about all of these things, and not just third-party arbitration, that we will step off the picket line.”

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