Why Columbia Student Workers Are Back On Strike

Frustrated over slow-moving contract negotiations, Columbia University’s graduate student workers are on strike for the second time this year, with a labor contract and the university’s fraught relationship with its graduate students on the line.

The Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union with about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students, have been picketing to secure greater worker protections and higher wages since the beginning of the month.

It’s one of a growing number of student worker unions striking for better working conditions across the country, including at New York University, which reached a contract after striking in the spring, and Harvard University, where a three-day strike ended in early November with an agreement.

Columbia University has indicated that it will only consider significant concessions through mediation, which began on Monday. The university declined to comment, referring instead to statements made by the administration and distributed campuswide.

As the holidays creep in and the semester draws to a close, pressure is mounting for the university and the student workers’ union to reach an agreement and return the campus to normalcy.

Several union members said they have been pushing hard for higher wages to make it possible for more lower-income students to attend Columbia. The current pay scale, they said, shuts out potential students who cannot make a living on graduate student worker income alone.

“I think there’s a perception that the higher-ed labor movement is unimportant because a lot of people in schools like Columbia come from privileged backgrounds, and I think that is true, to an extent,” said Johannah King-Slutzky, 31, a doctoral student in Columbia’s English department and a union member.

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

Here’s a look at the student workers’ demands and what’s next for the strike.

The strike began on Nov. 3, when dozens of student workers stopped work to picket the school. The workers include teaching assistants, research assistants and instructors of record, which are graduate students who teach their own classes.

Union members have estimated that about 130 classes have been canceled for the rest of the semester because of graduate instructors going on strike. Members said most of those classes are mandatory undergraduate core classes, of which there are about 300.

The first strike this year, which began in March and lasted more than a month, ended after the union reached a tentative agreement with the university. But the agreement was rejected by union members amid reports of internal tension and dissatisfaction with the union’s bargaining committee. In May, all 10 members of the bargaining committee stepped down.

With a mostly new bargaining committee in place, the union voted to authorize a second strike in early November after members expressed renewed frustrations over the slow negotiation process.

The university has said it believes a strike could have been avoided, and that negotiations should be allowed to play themselves out.

Student workers are calling for 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 $45,000 wage floor for doctoral students on one-year contracts, with yearly increases of 3 percent in the second and third years.

Compensation for Columbia’s graduate student workers varies by department, but union members said yearly pay is as low as $29,000 for students at the School of Social Work, and peaks at about $41,500 for engineering students.

The union is also asking for a minimum wage of $26 for hourly workers. Current minimum wage is $15 an hour, though 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 bargaining committee.

During the first day of picketing on Nov. 3, several student workers shared stories about going on food stamps to make ends meet and juggling rent payments with student loans.

Sam Stella, 33, a fourth-year doctoral student in the department of religion and a union member, said he had less than $10,000 to spend per year after paying for rent and day care. He and his wife have not been able to take their 3-year-old son to a dentist because they would have to pay for the visit out of pocket.

“If you’re a parent in New York and you’re living on Columbia wages, it means every single thing you do is more difficult and has to be more carefully considered,” Mr. Stella said.

Higher wages would also help attract students from a wider range of 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 bargaining committee.

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

One of the union’s biggest priorities is getting more third-party protections for students making discrimination and harassment claims — also known as neutral arbitration.

Neutral arbitration would allow students claiming they experienced harassment or discrimination to hire investigators or lawyers who are not affiliated with Columbia, outside of the university’s internal review process for complaints.

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

The administration has resisted this demand, although it has said it would be open to more negotiations about its policy during mediation.

In March, Ira Katznelson, who was then the university’s interim provost, proposed creating an appeals board made up of higher-education officials and employment law experts not affiliated with Columbia, who would hear appeals to the university’s case decisions on a rotating basis.

Union members said they had 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 out of fear of repercussions, they said, or they felt that the university would only give faculty members a slap on the wrist.

In his March memo, Mr. Katznelson said the university was not opposed to arbitration on its face, but that because graduate student workers are considered both students and employees at once, it would be difficult to determine when an arbitrator should be brought in and what evidence should be considered.

“There could be many instances characterized by a deep lack of clarity, charged with ambiguity,” Mr. Katznelson wrote. “Did the alleged behavior happen when the student was on assignment? In a work setting? Or not? There could be many disputes.”

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

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

Among other proposals, the university has offered to raise wages for doctoral students on 12-month contracts to $42,766, with yearly increases of 3 percent, and provide transitional support for graduate students, including a full semester’s worth of funding, if they need to leave unhealthy academic advising situations.

The university has offered to increase the minimum hourly wage to $19, going up to $21 after three years.

It has also proposed raising the annual child care stipend from $2,000 to $4,000, which would apply to children up to 6 years old. The union agreed to remove a provision asking for health care benefits for students working less than 10 hours a week, as well as dependents of undergraduates and masters students.

Columbia has said it is open to discussing giving students the right to pursue third-party litigation for discrimination and harassment complaints during mediation.

The university has maintained that it believes mediation will be more helpful for negotiation efforts than a strike.

According to an update on negotiations for faculty members, the university estimates the union’s demands will exceed $100 million over the next three years, although union members said their three-year estimate was closer to $79 million.

Reached for comment on the strike and ongoing negotiations, a spokesman for the university referred to a campuswide letter sent Monday by Mary C. Boyce, the provost. She said the university would take “every reasonable step” to end the strike as quickly as possible.

“Entering mediation is an encouraging step that holds out the promise of a resolution,” Ms. Boyce wrote. “Nevertheless, the authority to conclude the strike remains with the union.”

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

In the meantime, the strike will continue. Union members have said they are prepared to strike until the end of the year.

“This has been a really long battle for everyone,” Ms. Coie said. “The goal has always been to get this contract by the end of this semester. That’s why we really have to make this strike as effective as we possibly can, because this is it.”

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