This morning, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson updated the community on the University’s perspective and proposals regarding the ongoing graduate student strike. The union, the GWC-UAW, calls it a “step in the right direction,” but demands further assurances of neutrality in the process.
Earlier today, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson sent an update, provided at the end of the article, on the negotiations with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW), the union for graduate and undergraduate student workers. The strike, which officially began on March 15, has disrupted courses and research as those in the bargaining unit refuse to work until a fair contract is agreed upon.
After a week of negotiations, both parties agree that the main sticking point remains the GWC-UAW’s demand for third-party arbitration for claims of discrimination and harassment. Currently, the EOAA appeals process available to graduate student workers remains in-house. In his email, Katznelson addressed the issue of grievance and arbitration and outlined the proposal the University introduced in the March 23 bargaining session with the GWC-UAW. The union quickly responded in a bargaining update: “This is a step in the right direction and partially addresses our demand for neutrality. However, the University’s proposal is still lacking in several regards.”
Yesterday, the University proposed a plan where claims would be heard “on a rotating basis” by, according to Katznelson’s email, “individuals with experience in higher education and/or employment law who are not part of the University.” These individuals would be chosen by an advisory group with a variety of representatives, including the GWC-UAW. The email did not specify who else would be a part of this group or how much representation the GWC-UAW would have under this plan. Katznelson further claimed that this proposal is “directly responsive to the substantive core of the GWC-UAW request,” acting as the “independent pool of Appellate Officers” the GWC-UAW had originally demanded.
The update from the GWC-UAW clarified many aspects of the plan the University put forward that were not specified in Katznelson’s email, alongside several weaknesses the GWC-UAW sees in Columbia’s proposal. In the process the University put forward yesterday, the GWC-UAW claims that the scope of appeals would be too limited compared to the grievance and arbitration procedure and would restrict the ability of the GWC-UAW representatives to advocate for workers during the appeal. The University’s plan, according to the GWC-UAW, also does not address “power based intimidation or bullying.” Furthermore, the GWC-UAW’s bargaining update stated that the University would retain full control over the selection for this independent panel and that the GWC-UAW would only serve on the committee in an advisory capacity.
Katznelson emphasized that the University’s objections to third-party arbitration are “not matters of principle.” Other unions at Columbia, as Katznelson acknowledged, have third-party arbitration clauses in their contracts, such as the CPW-UAW contract of the postdoctoral researchers’ union. The University’s concern is the “unique status of graduate students” as both students of the University and its employees which, Katznelson argues, leads to potentially confusing situations where the capacity in which an individual was acting—student or worker—could be blurred. “Surely a process that only covers work settings is far from ideal,” Katzlenson writes. Throughout the bargaining process, the GWC-UAW has repeatedly disputed this perspective, claiming in their March 16 bargaining update that “the University’s response” to the request for third-party arbitration and the emphasis on the worker/student distinction “makes no sense.”
Katznelson said that once the issue of dealing with harassment and abuse claims is dealt with, he believes that the negotiations will finish quickly. The union echoed the desire to come to an agreement “quickly” and cited the strike and days of picketing, alongside an open letter from faculty, as reasons for this recent progress. However, neither Katznelson nor the union provided updates on other important areas of the negotiations that remain, such as dental healthcare coverage and union security.
Before concluding, Katznelson raised another concern of his: “the current mode of bargaining,” a Zoom session that outsiders are allowed to attend that he claims, “has become counterproductive.” He said the fact that the negotiations are attended by tens and sometimes hundreds of participants in addition to the GWC-UAW and University bargaining teams makes it difficult to have “a focused give and take.” The GWC-UAW did not respond to this concern.
Though there was progress toward an agreement between the GWC-UAW and the University these past two weeks, the strike will continue until the GWC-UAW’s demands are fully met. Thus, at least for the near future, classes and academic work led by graduate and undergraduate student workers will remain canceled. Bwog will continue to follow the events of the strike and update as necessary.
Statement from Interim Provost Ira Katznelson, March 24 at 11:02 AM EST:
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,
The Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW strike has been proceeding for more than a week. In that context, I should like to report on two matters—Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the bargaining process—while reiterating the University’s commitment to a prompt and fair resolution.
One of the major subjects still in dispute—arguably the single most important issue outstanding—is the process that addresses claims of discrimination and harassment. The Union has proposed third party arbitration, arguing that our process is defective because it contains no option to appeal to a neutral third party. Last week, we suggested a revised appeals process based on a significant expansion to grounds of appeal beyond those already in place. That offer did not elicit agreement. If appeals are heard by faculty or administration members who are inside the University, the Union asserted, there may be at least the appearance and, many fear, the actual absence of neutrality. My inbox has been filled with eloquent statements of this position.
We have listened. Responding to this concern, I joined yesterday’s bargaining session to present a revised plan, one that would establish Columbia as a leader in this evolving area of workplace protections. Rather than have appeals heard, as they are now, by members of the Office of the Provost, or, as we proposed last week, by University faculty and administrators, we have now proposed an appeals panel composed of individuals with experience in higher education and/or employment law who are not part of the University to hear cases on a rotating basis. An advisory group with representatives from various constituencies, including GWC-UAW Local 2110, will provide input for the selection of this group.
This University proposal is directly responsive to the substantive core of the GWC-UAW request: “In order to provide a neutral, third-party review of EOAA findings and recommendations, the University will establish a pool of independent Appellate Officers.” Opening this way, the proposal describes the appellate procedures and the scope of appeals. In all, it tells who these persons are, how they will be chosen, how they are to adjudicate, and on what basis appeals can be offered.
This submission represents a great enhancement, offering means to achieve the goals articulated by the GWC-UAW. Once in place, Columbia would have a more compelling process. That would be a great achievement for us all.
To be sure, a question lingers—why not agree to the demand for third party arbitration? The University’s objections are not matters of principle. After all, such arbitration was included in the postdoc UAW contract and in other union contracts for University employees. Current bargaining, however, is distinctive given the unique status of graduate students. At times of their assignment, graduate students become graduate workers, employees. At other times, they simply are students. A contract will govern the first but not the second temporal moment. Thus there could be many instances characterized by a deep lack of clarity, charged with ambiguity. Did the alleged behavior happen when the student was on assignment? In a work setting? Or not? There could be many disputes. Surely a process that only covers work settings is far from ideal.
By contrast, the alternative we have put forward would not be limited to persons in the role of student worker. The procedures for appeal will govern all EOAA adjudications across the University.
If we settle this pivotal matter, we should be able to conclude negotiations quickly. That brings me to my second point. The current mode of bargaining, fashioned by our interlocutors for the normatively appealing goal of transparency, has become counterproductive. Each session is attended by a University bargaining team, the GWC-UAW bargaining team, and tens of other participants, sometimes some two hundred, who join on Zoom. This arrangement makes a focused give and take difficult. After two years, we have reached a point in our negotiations—the end game, hopefully—that requires a meaningful back and forth between parties.
The University, I should like to underscore, is fully prepared to swiftly complete an agreement, which, like the postdoc contract, would be a win for the Union and a win for the University.
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History
Image via Shira Michaeli