Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth announced today that Columbia has agreed to bargain with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) and Columbia Postdoctoral Workers (CPW), both unions affiliated with United Automobile Workers (UAW). The announcement comes just a week and a half before November 30, the deadline GWC gave Columbia to agree to bargain before a December 4 strike date, and could prohibit a strike before April 6, 2020.
It came in the form of a “Framework Agreement” that could guide negotiations between Columbia and these unions if it is accepted by both. “We are evaluating the proposal and look forward to putting it to a vote,” said Rosalie Ray, a bargaining committee member for GWC, in a statement to Bwog. Bargaining will not proceed unless both unions agree to the Framework Agreement by Wednesday, November 28. If both unions do not agree by that date, the agreement will be “considered null and void” and the unions will have to find other ways to bring Columbia to the table.
In previous refusals to bargain, Coatsworth has emphasized Columbia’s interest against having an “outside party involved in what are ultimately academic and intellectual judgments by faculty members.” The Framework Agreement is designed to ensure Columbia’s continued control over the academic environment at the school. It requires the unions to agree that any bargaining agreement cannot interfere with “the integrity of Columbia’s academic decision-making” or the school’s right to “manage the institution consistent with its educational and research mission.” It also makes explicit “Columbia’s right to control academic concerns and issues.”
The agreement also ensures a continued role for “elected student councils, associations and societies (such as the Postdoctoral Society)” in representing graduate and postdoctoral students’ interests in regards to “academic and governance issues.” In the past, Columbia has said that the presence of such groups negates the need for unions: “[W]e have been working productively with the Graduate Student Advisory Council, the Engineering Graduate Student Council, and other student government bodies to address stipend and quality of life issues,” Coatsworth wrote in a January 30, 2018 letter explaining Columbia’s refusal to bargain at that time.
Columbia graduate students have been fighting for unionization for years. In 2017, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the union, removing any further legal barriers to bargaining. But Columbia continued to pursue the legal route, arguing that the NLRB’s position on graduate student unions has changed from presidential administration to administration and that a more definite answer was needed. After the university refused to bargain last semester, graduate students went on strike for one week, making TAs unavailable during reading week. Nine private universities have agreed to bargain with graduate workers, including Brandeis, Tufts, and NYU. Negotiations are also underway at Harvard and The New School.
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