Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Bargaining: Toward an Agreement

March 08, 2021

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Some of you will know that this letter is particularly painful for me to write as a person with long-standing connections to the labor movement, including a history of work with the United Auto Workers some years back on the side of political strategy. I write, notwithstanding, to share some reflections in light of Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 telling us that it will begin an official strike on Monday, March 15, based on an authorization vote taken one year ago.

It has been a source of pride for many of us that the University reached an agreement with our postdoctoral researchers and associate research scientists and scholars at the very end of last June, formally concluded in July, without any work interruption. That contract was saluted by both parties, signified on the union side by a 99 percent vote to ratify.

A hallmark of the agreement was the decision we took to significantly raise compensation minimums for postdocs. I should note that the University pursued that course following a study demonstrating that Columbia’s compensation levels for postdocs before the adjustment were “under market,” thus putting us in a zone that was less than fully competitive, and which we sought to remedy. By contrast, current graduate student stipends in comparison to our peers are at the high end, and we are proud of that position. In other words, with regard to compensation, we are at a different starting point in the current negotiation than we were with the postdocs, but for both groups Columbia strives to ensure that the intellectual and economic opportunities of studying and working at Columbia are compelling. 

Our present goal—an agreement with the GWC-UAW that elevates the support made available to our graduate students and does so in a manner that strengthens our collective future—would echo the prior achievement. Yet here we are, having to contemplate the decision—both regrettable and unnecessary in my view—the graduate student bargaining unit has taken to engage in a work stoppage.

The disappointment many of us feel is grounded not only in the significant burden that our campus would be compelled to bear in the event of a strike during one of the most stressful times in the history of students, staff, and faculty at Columbia, but because, after a long period of relative stasis, there has been considerable progress in our negotiations. Recent weeks have witnessed draft agreements with respect to Management and Academic Rights, Discipline and Discharge, International Student Employees, Leaves of Absence, and Child Care. These issues, now resolved, earlier had been characterized by deep division separating the University and the union.

Based on these achievements, there exists a justifiable hopefulness, certainly by those of us on our side of the bargaining table, about the chance to expeditiously resolve the differences that remain. The elements of an accord on outstanding matters come more clearly into focus with each successive bargaining session, as they did the other day on the subject of recognition concerning the scope of the bargaining unit. Not capitalizing on this momentum is a mistake.

I am confident that a combination of good will and a willingness to suspend disbelief will help us find our way to considered solutions. For that we need mutual realism. Collective bargaining is an iterative process. No single round can produce optimal results. This is especially so during the pandemic, which has placed Columbia, and higher education more generally, under great fiscal strain, with responses that have included wage and hiring freezes. Regarding compensation, there are lines we are unable to cross. Current demands, set forth as recently as Monday of last week, for increases of 10 percent and subsequent 6 percent annual improvements, simply put, are neither reasonable nor responsible in present circumstances.

There are issues, including critical ones associated with matters of discrimination and harassment, where we are not adversaries (all of us share the wish to have prompt, careful, and just adjudications), and where we need to find mechanisms consistent with law and good practice. In this domain, we need to establish collaborative means not only to improve by ensuring that there are no administrative barriers to an appropriate pace and fair investigation, but to learn how best to secure our common goal by working together over time.

I know there is much frustration among students that two years have passed since bargaining began. I share that frustration, even if there are identifiable reasons, not least of which is that initial contracts often take this long. First agreements, after all, are hard. I could go on, and not all will agree on this or any other analysis of causes. In truth, none of this is presently relevant. What we need is for both sides to sharpen their focus on getting an agreement ratified, not later than in the coming weeks of this term. The University is committed to this goal.

I thus close by entreating our student and union representatives to continue intensive good faith bargaining without striking. We need to be mindful of the price of a stoppage, not least for the thousands of students who have been grappling with non-traditional education via Zoom and hybrid classes. Teaching, including work by TAs, has been remarkably effective, sometimes heroic. It would be disruptive to curtail key features of pedagogy at this particular moment.

Conversely, make no mistake about the importance of a GWC-UAW agreement for all of us at Columbia and, dare I say, for the labor movement. It would be deeply disappointing if we fail to reach an agreement, not just to me or other individuals in the senior leadership of the University, but to faculty colleagues and, I believe, to the great majority of students. Let’s not lose sight of the prize.



Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History