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Why Columbia’s student workers are back on strike


Frustrated by the slow pace of contract negotiations, graduate students at Columbia University are on strike for the second time this year, with an employment contract and the university’s strained relationship with its graduate students at stake.

The Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union with about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students, have staged a picket line for greater worker protection and higher wages since the start of the month.

He is part of a growing number of student unions striking for better working conditions across the country, including at New York University, which struck a contract after going on strike in the spring, and at the University at Harvard, where a three-day strike ended in early November with a deal.

Columbia University has said it will only consider large concessions through mediation, which began on Monday. The university declined to comment, instead referring to statements made by the administration and circulated throughout campus.

As the holidays draw near and the semester draws to a close, pressure builds for the university and the student union to come to an agreement and bring the campus back to normal.

Several union members said they had pushed for higher wages to allow more low-income students to attend Columbia. The current salary scale, they said, excludes potential students who cannot make a living solely on graduate student income.

“I think there is a perception that the higher education labor movement is not important because a lot of people in schools like Columbia come from privileged backgrounds, and I think that’s true, in to some extent, “said Johannah King-Slutzky, 31. doctoral student at Columbia’s English department and union member.

“But I also think that one of the reasons the higher education labor movement in Columbia and elsewhere is so important is that we really need to make it accessible to people who don’t have a safety net to fall back on. cast off. “

Here is an overview of the demands of the student workers and the follow-up to the strike.

The strike began on November 3, when dozens of students stopped working to picket the school. Workers include teaching assistants, research assistants, and official instructors, who are graduate students who teach their own classes.

Union members estimated that around 130 classes were canceled for the remainder of the semester due to the graduate instructor strike. Members said most of these courses are compulsory undergraduate courses, of which there are around 300.

This year’s first strike, which began in March and lasted for over a month, ended after the union hit a agreement in principle with the university. But the deal was rejected by union members amid internal tensions and dissatisfaction with the union’s bargaining committee. In May, all 10 members of the bargaining committee resigned.

With a mostly new bargaining committee in place, the union voted to allow a second strike in early November after members expressed further frustration at the slow negotiation process.

The university said it believed a strike could have been avoided and that negotiations should be allowed to proceed.

The hard-working students are asking the university to pay them higher wages, provide dental and vision health coverage, and allow neutral third-party arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment.

The union is asking for a minimum salary of $ 45,000 for doctoral students on one-year contracts, with annual increases of 3% in the second and third years.

Pay for Columbia graduate students varies by department, but union members said the annual salary was as low as $ 29,000 for students in the School of Social Work and peaked at around $ 41,500 for students in genius.

The union is also calling for a minimum wage of $ 26 for hourly workers. The current minimum wage is $ 15 an hour, although the minimum for doctoral students is often closer to $ 17 depending on their department, said Lilian Coie, 27, a doctoral student in neurobiology and a member of the negotiating committee.

During the first day of picketing on November 3, several hard-working students shared stories about using food stamps to make ends meet and juggling rent payments and student loans.

Sam Stella, 33, a fourth-year doctoral student in the religion department and a union member, said he had less than $ 10,000 to spend a year after paying rent and child care. He and his wife were unable to take their 3-year-old son to the dentist as they would have to pay for the visit out of pocket.

“If you’re a parent in New York City and you live off Columbia’s salary, it means everything you do is more difficult and needs to be viewed with more care,” Mr. Stella said.

Higher salaries would also help attract students from more diverse backgrounds and create a more diverse student body, said Mandi Spishak-Thomas, 31, a doctoral student at the School of Social Work and a member of the negotiating committee. .

“A living wage would really benefit Columbia,” Ms. Spishak-Thomas said. “They would be able to recruit a really competitive group of students if they offered us a viable package. “

One of the union’s top priorities is to secure more third party protections for students making discrimination and harassment claims, also known as neutral arbitration.

Neutral arbitration would allow students who claim they have been harassed or discriminated against to hire investigators or lawyers who are not affiliated with Columbia, outside of the university’s internal complaint review process.

Graduate student workers are the only workers on campus without the possibility of third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment. Union members argued that confining complaints of discrimination and harassment to an internal review process overseen by the university creates an inherent conflict of interest when assessing a student’s case against faculty members or advisers.

The administration resisted the request, although it said it would be open to more negotiations over its policy during mediation.

In March, Ira Katznelson, then acting rector of the university, proposed to create an appeals committee made up of higher education officials and labor law experts not affiliated with Columbia, who would hear appeals against university decisions on a rotating basis.

Union members said they heard several stories from student workers about harassment or abuse from their advisers. These workers were generally afraid to come forward and file a report for fear of repercussions, they said, or they felt the university would just give faculty members a slap on the wrist.

In his March memo, Katznelson said the university was not opposed to arbitration on its face, but because graduate students are seen as both students and employees, it would be difficult determine when an arbitrator should be appointed and what evidence should be considered.

“There could be many cases characterized by a profound lack of clarity, fraught with ambiguity,” Katznelson wrote. “Did the alleged behavior occur while the student was on homework? In a working environment ? Or not? There could be many disputes.

The message union members received from the university, they said, is that it believes its internal system is capable of protecting its students.

“They are missing the bottom line, which is that we don’t feel protected by Columbia, and we are absolutely exploited workers in the workplace,” Ms. Spishak-Thomas said. “It’s a total ideological difference.

Among other proposals, the university proposed to increase the salaries of doctoral students under 12-month contract to $ 42,766, with annual increases of 3%, and to provide transitional support to graduate students, including a full semester of funding, if they have to go. unhealthy school board situations.

The university has proposed to increase the minimum hourly wage to $ 19, then to $ 21 after three years.

He also proposed to increase the annual child care allowance from $ 2,000 to $ 4,000, which would apply to children up to age 6. The union agreed to remove a provision calling for health care benefits for students working less than 10 hours per week, as well as dependents of undergraduates and master’s students.

Columbia said it was open to discussing giving students the right to bring legal action with a third party over complaints of discrimination and harassment during mediation.

University maintained that he thinks mediation will be more useful in negotiating efforts than a strike.

According to a Negotiations update for faculty membersThe university estimates the union’s demands will exceed $ 100 million over the next three years, although union members have said their three-year estimate is closer to $ 79 million.

Contacted to comment on the strike and ongoing negotiations, a spokesperson for the university referred to a campus-wide letter sent Monday by Mary C. Boyce, the provost. She said the university would take “all reasonable steps” to end the strike as quickly as possible.

“Going into mediation is an encouraging step that holds the promise of resolution,” Ms. Boyce wrote. “However, the power to conclude the strike rests with the union. “

On Monday, open mediation began, and the university and the union hope to help bridge the gap between their proposals and create a contract that everyone can agree on.

In the meantime, the strike will continue. Union members said they were ready to strike until the end of the year.

“It has been a very long battle for everyone,” Ms. Coie said. “The objective has always been to obtain this contract by the end of this semester. That’s why we really need to make this strike as effective as possible, because that’s it. “