Union Bargaining Update

March 24, 2021

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

The Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW strike has been proceeding for more than a week. In that context, I should like to report on two matters—Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the bargaining process—while reiterating the University’s commitment to a prompt and fair resolution.

One of the major subjects still in dispute—arguably the single most important issue outstanding—is the process that addresses claims of discrimination and harassment. The Union has proposed third party arbitration, arguing that our process is defective because it contains no option to appeal to a neutral third party. Last week, we suggested a revised appeals process based on a significant expansion to grounds of appeal beyond those already in place. That offer did not elicit agreement. If appeals are heard by faculty or administration members who are inside the University, the Union asserted, there may be at least the appearance and, many fear, the actual absence of neutrality. My inbox has been filled with eloquent statements of this position.

We have listened. Responding to this concern, I joined yesterday’s bargaining session to present a revised plan, one that would establish Columbia as a leader in this evolving area of workplace protections. Rather than have appeals heard, as they are now, by members of the Office of the Provost, or, as we proposed last week, by University faculty and administrators, we have now proposed an appeals panel composed of individuals with experience in higher education and/or employment law who are not part of the University to hear cases on a rotating basis. An advisory group with representatives from various constituencies, including GWC-UAW Local 2110, will provide input for the selection of this group.

This University proposal is directly responsive to the substantive core of the GWC-UAW request: “In order to provide a neutral, third-party review of EOAA findings and recommendations, the University will establish a pool of independent Appellate Officers.” Opening this way, the proposal describes the appellate procedures and the scope of appeals. In all, it tells who these persons are, how they will be chosen, how they are to adjudicate, and on what basis appeals can be offered.

This submission represents a great enhancement, offering means to achieve the goals articulated by the GWC-UAW. Once in place, Columbia would have a more compelling process. That would be a great achievement for us all.

To be sure, a question lingers—why not agree to the demand for third party arbitration? The University’s objections are not matters of principle. After all, such arbitration was included in the postdoc UAW contract and in other union contracts for University employees. Current bargaining, however, is distinctive given the unique status of graduate students. 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. 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.

By contrast, the alternative we have put forward would not be limited to persons in the role of student worker. The procedures for appeal will govern all EOAA adjudications across the University.

If we settle this pivotal matter, we should be able to conclude negotiations quickly. That brings me to my second point. The current mode of bargaining, fashioned by our interlocutors for the normatively appealing goal of transparency, has become counterproductive. Each session is attended by a University bargaining team, the GWC-UAW bargaining team, and tens of other participants, sometimes some two hundred, who join on Zoom. This arrangement makes a focused give and take difficult. 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, I should like to underscore, 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.


Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History