Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Bargaining

March 15, 2021

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

This is a letter I hoped not to have to write. With the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW strike having begun, despite literally hundreds of hours of negotiation and much already settled, a series of clarifications seems imperative.

The first concerns the rhetorical charge that Columbia either is anti-labor or somehow is seeking to “smash” the union. With the signing of the framework agreement in November 2018, the University recognized the GWC-UAW and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers-UAW as its interlocutors, and committed itself to good faith bargaining with each to achieve fair and equitable contracts. We reached an agreement, a very good agreement, with the CPW-UAW at the end of June 2020. This was a path-breaking settlement, the first of its kind among major private universities, a source of collective satisfaction.

When the National Labor Relations Board during the Trump Administration proposed a rule that would have rescinded the right of unions to bargain on behalf of graduate students, I wrote to the community the very next day to say that Columbia would continue to adhere to the framework agreement. We said a loud “no” to this anti-labor move. Happily, just the other day, the NLRB rescinded the proposed rule.

As I write, the union has chosen to break off talks in favor of a strike when we are in hailing distance of a second landmark agreement. I say “landmark” even though a small number of union contracts for graduate student workers at private universities exist because, as a matter of scale and standing, a Columbia agreement would be a signal achievement.

Of course, context and timing are causal. The situation regarding health, stress, uncertainty, and material reality is presently far from optimal. Notwithstanding, the current moment offers the opportunity, within the scope of existing constraints, to improve the circumstances of our graduate workers. The contract offered by the University contains many advances, and it dramatically increases stipends in doctoral programs that have been at some distance from existing levels in other parts of the University by establishing unprecedented university-wide minimum levels.

Equity has been our watchword, and not just within and among the graduate student community (whose stipends, unlike arrangements that prevail at many universities, are not linked directly to assignment as TAs and RAs, but are paid at the same level when students are in, or not in, a work situation). As I said to the bargaining committee on Friday, what we are offering regarding compensation is not optimal, but, in present conditions, fair. 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.

Nevertheless, the University has offered an additional increase at the start of the contract and in subsequent years. The present demand, now at the reduced level of 5 percent and no less than 4 percent in subsequent years, is not tenable, and no strike, as I told the group, can change that reality.

Another outstanding matter concerns unacceptable discriminatory or harassing behavior. Our latest proposal on the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Title IX process reflects a direct answer to the key question raised by the union—how can we widen the lens through which one ensures the fairness of the process undertaken by the University in deciding these difficult cases?

We have listened to these concerns and have proposed significant modifications to the process, notably the creation of an appellate panel of faculty and administrators drawn up after discussion with the union that would be called on to hear any appeals, at arm’s-length from the Office of the Provost where the EOAA process resides. Further, in addition to the two existing bases for appeal—process violations and new information not originally considered—we would expand the scope to include interpretations of University policy by an investigator that affected the outcome of the process, and an investigator’s conflict of interest or bias that impacted the outcome, both as new grounds for an appeal.

This substantial set of steps directly addresses the disquiet we have heard from the bargaining committee, and, indeed, from others across the University. To date, the response has been to reject this initiative on the ground that “no one at the university can be neutral,” which, in truth, whether intended or not, is something of an affront.

Sooner or later, there will be agreement on a contract. Of course, sooner would be much better than later. The University will continue to work to that end.

Finally, a note about our educational mission, which, of course, continues. The GWC-UAW website recognizes this important point when it counsels those on strike not to miss their own classes (“student workers should continue their academic progress while striking”). That is good advice, which holds for all.


Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History