It’s been almost two years since the medical assistant workers in Columbia’s Primary Care Services voted to join 1199 SEIU, a union with over 5,000 members in New York City. Most of the union members 1199 represents work at the Columbia Medical Center uptown, in addition to more than 500 workers in dining and clerical services here on the Morningside Heights campus. So it wasn’t strange when the eight women who work in Primary Care voted to join the union. But a year and a half, and more than 25 bargaining meetings later, there is still no contract agreement.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michael Ashby, Vice President of 1199 SEIU. Ashby represents the workers at the medical center and the dining and clerical services at the Morningside campus. He explained that the current situation does not reflect normal contract negotiation procedure. When the other workers on the Morningside campus voted to join the union just over three years ago, it took around four bargaining meetings between Columbia and the union to agree on language for the contract for over 500 workers, compared to 25+ meetings – and counting – for these eight workers. The demands haven’t changed. Columbia’s Director of Labor and Employee Relations for Morningside, Idina Gorman, hasn’t changed. So, what is causing such a different process this time?
When the eight medical staff voted to join the union, 1199 wanted to have them folded into the already-existing contract that they had with the Columbia University dining and clerical services employees. This was a standard decision: it was a small number of new members; the University had already negotiated and agreed to the conditions and terms in those contracts. But Columbia refused, instead electing to revisit every term and proposed benefit. According to Gwynne Wilcox, lawyer for 1199, “the University has disregarded this precedent in bargaining and has effectively ignored the other two 1199 contracts that the University negotiated.” Wilcox added that “it is rare for employers to act like this under these circumstances for eight workers where the Union and employer already have contracts with substantial other workers,” she continued. “In most instance[s], employers would have adopted the existing contracts.” In short, Columbia hasn’t made it easy. However, what no one seems to know is why.
What they’re asking for isn’t unreasonable, even by Columbia’s own precedent of past contract negotiations with workers in similar positions. In fact, Columbia has already agreed to the standards set by the union in the past. That’s why the negotiators for 1199 wanted to simply use the existing process, to speed up and simplify unionization for everyone involved. But Columbia wouldn’t agree to this, and for the workers, the stakes are only getting larger.
“We haven’t gotten a raise in two years,” said Katherine Matos, one of the healthcare workers trying to unionize. “We just want a fair contract. We want livable wages and good benefits,” she added. And for Wilcox, “the University’s wage proposal disregards this reality.” After more than 25 meetings, they have just started discussing wages – and what the workers want is nowhere near what Columbia is offering. “The meetings they have agreed to are about very minimal issues,” added Matos.
Also up for debate is the clause about protection against sexual harassment. “They don’t want to include that clause because they said that it’s already part of their policy, so the Union is like, ‘if it’s already part of the policy then just put it in our contract.’” said Matos. Wilcox noted that “contract proposals concerning sexual harassment, creating a health and safety committee, and Union dues checkoff, are rather standard language that is contained in the two other 1199 contracts with University and are indications of the University’s decision to treat these eight workers differently than the other union workers.” With every contract issue, from wages and sexual harassment to childcare to pensions, the workers and union have faced significant difficulties.
Those difficulties were present from the start of the unionization process. According to Matos, “certain people from HR started coming to us trying to convince us not to join.” Wilcox
“believe[s] that they did not want these eight health care workers to organize and become a part of the Union based upon their campaign to discourage the workers from voting for the Union, and the negotiations are an extension of that campaign. Even if there is no sweat off their back to agree to the sexual harassment, health and safety, and union dues checkoff, they have said no.”
“We knew that there was going to be pushback,” said Matos. “We knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. But because there were 8 of us, and because we’re not asking for anything that is out of the ordinary […] we didn’t think that it was going to take two years.” The workers have faced a great deal of resistance from Columbia regarding small issues, like who would provide uniforms, which the University has always supplied. When supporters such as students and other workers attempted to come to two of the bargaining meetings, Columbia refused to continue those meetings, choosing instead to walk out. “They’re playing games with people’s lives and livelihood,” said Matos. “If we weren’t in the union we would have a heavier workload; we would have to do things that are outside our job description,” said Marcia Sutherland, one of the healthcare workers undergoing unionization. Because the stakes are so high, the workers and the union are committed to finishing the process. They’ve also hosted protests and have been trying to inform students about the situation and the stakes.
“We are still anticipating that we will get a contract,” said Sutherland. “It seems to me they want to give us less than what we currently have and we’re not gonna have that.” Sutherland added that they have seen some success because of their protests: after Columbia refused to provide their uniforms, all eight workers came in wearing their street clothes. “As a result of that, we all got our uniform[s] that day,” said Sutherland.
This is all happening in the same timeframe as the graduate workers fight for Columbia to bargain with them for a contract. Similarly, the graduate workers voted a year and a half ago to unionize, and are still facing resistance from the Columbia administration to even get to the bargaining table for a contract.
According to members of Student Worker Solidarity (SWS), another possible cause of this resistance is the University’s interest in keeping the contract standards low, so that the next time they bargain with any union to renew contracts for other workers on campus, there is no precedent for better conditions and benefits. There’s also a possibility that Columbia believes the unionization will have more negative consequences than positive. “I know they’ve used the argument in the past about how it will hurt students,” said Chadwick Macmillan, SWS member and CC ’21. But when workers have liveable conditions, students benefit. “When you have workers working long shifts […] with low pay, that’s going to affect the students more than if you gave them better wages,” said Macmillan. Inga Manticas, CC ’20, encouraged students to become more aware of the issue. “Workers make our campus run; students have the obligation to care about those who care for us.”
When asked for a comment on the bargaining process, Director of Labor and Employee Relations for Morningside Idina Gorman did not respond. Columbia’s Media Relations Director Caroline Adelman said that ongoing negotiations are usually not discussed publicly, but that “Columbia is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith with 1199 SEIU for a first contract for the medical assistants unit in Primary Care Medical Services.”
Photo via Columbia Health