Graduate workers, who have been organizing for the past year, welcome recognition of needed changes from the Provost, Dean of Engineering
NEW YORK – In a rare email to Ph.D. candidates, Columbia University Provost John H. Coatsworth announced a number of changes to improve workplace benefits for many graduate workers. The announcement – which includes parental leave, childcare subsidies and changes in fees – comes as graduate workers have been joining together to fight for respect and their rights as Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW (GWC-UAW). The announcement answers calls for change the group has been raising and builds on previous changes that have occurred since graduate workers began organizing.
The Dean of Engineering also announced changes yesterday, including increased coverage of fees. This move – as demanded by GWC-UAW – provides more parity across schools and programs.
“Provost Coatsworth not only announced much needed changes to policies, he also acknowledged that Ph.D. students are in fact workers that deserve basic benefits from the university,” said Olga Brudastova, a PhD student and researcher in the Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics departments. “By coming together across departments and schools, graduate workers are forcing the administration to make real changes that allow us to focus on teaching and researching. We will be even stronger when Columbia recognizes our union.”
Graduate workers have specifically been calling on the university administration to make policy changes and to recognize their rights as workers. GWC-UAW, along with the Graduate Advisory Council, have been calling for parental leave so that workers are able to care for their families while maintaining their standing in academic programs. This has been a significant issue of concern, especially for women workers who have been forced to choose between their families and their careers because there was no parental policy. In December, GWC-UAW met with the Dean of the Graduate School for Arts and Sciences to demand the university waive international student fees, after the administration had announced a 60% increase over the next five years.
Earlier this semester, GWC-UAW won two additional years of fees waivers and health insurance for PhD students in journalism.
“While New York just passed a paid parental leave law for part-time and full-time workers in the state, Columbia’s administration is finally assuring that graduate workers will not be penalized for spending time with newborns,” said Chandler Walker, a 5th year graduate worker in the Integrated Program in Cellular Molecular and Biomedical Studies. “Graduate workers are glad the administration is making changes, but we need the university to stop fighting against our rights as workers. Recognizing our union would allow all of us to work together – the administration, faculty and graduate workers – to make Columbia the strongest university possible.”
The group, with the support of UAW, is awaiting what is expected to be the reversal of a legal precedent that stripped graduate workers of their rights. The National Labor Relations Board is currently reviewing a petition from Columbia graduate workers to recognize their status as university employees, overturning the 2004 politically-motivated Brown decision. The reversal of the decision would be landmark in recognizing the contributions and rights of graduate workers and opening up the opportunity for graduate workers nationwide to form unions.
“Graduate workers at Columbia and all across the country are winning recognition for their work and their rights because they are coming together and forming unions,” said Julie Kushner, the Director of UAW Regional 9A. “With the expected reversal of the Brown decision, graduate workers at private universities will finally have the opportunity to win needed improvements that their colleagues at public universities, as well as at New York University, have secured through their unions.”
In just two years, the group at Columbia University has grown to a network of thousands of graduate workers in every university department. More than 160 New York elected and community leaders and hundreds of university professors from California to Texas to Pennsylvania are calling on Columbia’s administration to publicly commit to respect graduate workers’ right to form a union.
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