Columbia University graduate workers walked off the job during finals to protest the administration not recognizing their union, even though the election was certified by the National Labor Relations Board. The graduate workers demand that the administration immediately begin contract negotiations.
Plenty of Activity in Higher Education
Academic workers at the University of Connecticut (UConn), Harvard University, the University of Washington (UW), The New School in New York City and Columbia University all made national news by organizing and fighting for their right to be UAW members.
• For Harvard, over 5,000 research and teaching assistants have the opportunity to bargain their first contract as the university acknowledged the power of the graduate worker vote after fighting their efforts to
• Meanwhile across the continent over 1,100 post-doctorate workers will have the opportunity to bargain their own contract at UW.
• At Columbia, teaching and research assistants held a nationally publicized strike as the university refuses to bargain with the union that voted by 72 percent to join the UAW.
• And at UConn, the state legislature approved a new contract for the school’s graduate employee union while over 150 UConn post-doctorate workers will be granted card check to join the UAW in the coming weeks.
• At The New School, a four-day strike was held in April to pressure the administration to adequately address economic issues, particularly health care.
At UConn, graduate workers have approved a four-year contract negotiated between the school’s graduate employee union, GEU-UAW, and the university administration.
The agreement, which was reached in April and ratified by graduate workers, provides 2 percent annual stipend (wage) increases, waives an additional $100 of UConn’s General University Fee, and improves contract language on parking, summer work, bereavement and grievances. Health care was also maintained with modest increases. Connecticut lawmakers had to sign off on the agreement before it could be put into effect.
UCONN voluntarily recognized GEU-UAW in April 2014 after a majority of graduate employees indicated their desire for UAW representation. This is the second contract the two sides have negotiated since union recognition.
“Our congratulations go out to the bargaining committee at GEU-UAW for the hard work they put into negotiating this contract,” said Julie Kushner, director of Region 9A which covers New England and parts of New York state, including New York City. “They focused on the needs of their fellow graduate workers and won an agreement that provides substantial benefits over the life of the agreement.”
At Harvard, graduate workers are setting up a bargaining committee to negotiate their first contract after they voted to join the UAW in April. Harvard administrators recognized the power of the graduate workers’ solidarity and immediately announced they would take the high road by agreeing to enter into “good faith” negotiations with the Harvard Graduate Student Union-UAW (HGSU-UAW).
“We commend the administration for doing the right thing and agreeing to bargain with our unions,” said Andrew B. Donnelly, a member of the organizing committee. “We’re excited for our next steps as we elect our bargaining committee and prepare for bargaining.”
Without a union, graduate workers have little recourse on issues such as low stipends, health care, parental leave, sexual harassment, academic fees, parking and many others. But what may be most important to many graduate workers is the stability a binding contract brings to the workforce, said Niharika Singh, a Harvard PhD candidate in public policy. Having unexpected health care cost increases can wreak havoc on the finances of already financially stressed graduate workers.
“We should be able to predict what we are going to make,” Singh said. “Most of us are not sitting on piles and piles of money. Our stipends are modest.”
Graduate workers also want their first contract to address sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Sexual Harassment is a big issue on campus,” she added. “These are not minor concerns. I’m of the opinion that one is too many, but we are way beyond that.”
Columbia University in New York City, however, chose the low road. Teaching and research assistants who are members of Graduate Workers of Columbia University- UAW (GWC-UAW) held a strike during the last week of classes in April, an action that demonstrated to administrators that they won’t be intimidated and will continue to fight until the school respects the outcome of a democratic election. Columbia graduate workers voted with a 72 percent majority more than a year and a half ago to be represented by the UAW. Since that time, Columbia University has defied U.S. labor law by refusing to bargain with its employees.
“Columbia should take Harvard’s cue and sit down with their graduate employees to bargain a contract not only to help graduate workers but to move the entire university forward,” Kushner said. “Graduate employees not only work at their universities, but they want them to succeed in their academic mission just as much as the administration. It’s past time for Columbia to do the right thing and come to the table.”
The strike may be repeated in the fall if Columbia continues to ignore the results of a democratic union representation election.
“We work hard and are dedicated to the core principles of this university, but we have had enough,” said Olga Brudastova, a teaching assistant at Columbia’s Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department. “We work long hours for Columbia, and most of us take home less than $30,000 a year while securing millions in grants and research funding. We want a union because we want real recourse when faced with sexual harassment or assault, and progress on issues like late pay, dilapidated lab facilities, and benefits. We won a union election with 72 percent of the vote 16 months ago – and the law is clear. Columbia must bargain with us. As long as they refuse to respect our legal rights, we will take action to take our power back.”
The resistance to employee representation at Columbia surprised many people, considering the otherwise progressive credentials of President Lee Bolger and others. Instead, they have used every trick in the anti-union consultant’s book, including asking the Trump administration to throw out the results of a federally certified election to avoid bargaining.
The graduate workers have the support of more than 200 elected officials, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer, along with Reps. Jerry Nadler and Grace Meng. Hundreds of faculty members and more than 1,000 alumni and students have all asked Columbia to do the right thing, to no avail.
“This is only the beginning,” said Ian Bradley-Perrin, a PhD candidate in public health. “If Columbia continues to refuse to bargain with us, they should expect us to strike again. We love our work and our students, but we need the security of a contract to move forward. We won a democratic election that was certified by the federal government, and the law is clear. It’s time for Columbia to come to the table.”
At the University of Washington in Seattle, post-doctoral workers won their union with 89 percent supporting the union. They will become a separate bargaining unit of UAW Local 4121. Among their concerns are that Seattle is the 5th most expensive city in the U.S. for housing and the 6th most expensive for child care.
“Now we have the power to make real change to address these and many other inequities and challenges that UW postdocs face,” the UW Postdocs United / UAW Organizing Committee said in a letter to fellow postdocs after the vote.
The first bargaining unit of Local 4121, which covers teaching and research assistants at the university, held a one-day strike in May to highlight the lack of progress in their contract negotiations. One graduate worker who wished to remain anonymous posted a note on the local’s blog that broke down his monthly budget. When rent, school fees, utilities, auto expenses, health care and other expenses are all accounted for, the graduate worker is left with $23.57 out of a take-home income of $2,380. The graduate worker needs a new computer to write a dissertation next year and cannot afford that.
“My energy and focus should be on producing cutting-edge scholarship, not double checking my grocery receipt to make sure I was charged for the can of beans with the sale price of $0.60 and not the full price of $0.99. Is this how much the University of Washington values academic student employees? So little that we are not paid a living wage?”
At The New School, bargaining continues on a contract for 700 academic student workers who are members of Student Employees at The New School, SENS-UAW Local 7902. They voted 502-2 in May 2017 for their union. At press time, the parties were far apart on key economic issues. Bargaining is expected to continue over the summer and the local plans more actions in the fall to keep the pressure on the administration until a fair contract is reached.
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