Deputy Editor Lillian Rountree, Deputy Events Editor Grace Fitzgerald-Diaz, and SGA Bureau Chief Grace Novarr spoke with the three dissenting members of the GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee following the announcement of the tentative contract rejection and the entire committee’s joint resignation.

Since the discussion below, it has been announced that the union voted to officially end the graduate student workers’ strike, which began on March 15. We will provide updates with more details as we receive them.

On May 7, an announcement was sent out to the members of the GWC-UAW Local 2110, the graduate student workers’ union of Columbia: the ten members of their Bargaining Committee, the main elected body negotiating with the University for a contract, were resigning. The resignation came a week after the tentative contract agreement between the union and the University was rejected by the rank and file, or non-Bargaining Committee, members of the organization in a 53% to 47% vote. Citing a division both within the union and the committee itself and a petition circulated within the union advocating for Bargaining Committee reconstitution, the committee chose to step down and make way for new elections to “restore [the] democratic mandate” of the body. 

The Organizing Committee, an open organization composed of volunteers from within the union, is now charged with running the Bargaining Committee elections and deciding on a timeline for future bargaining with the University. The key contractual needs of the union remain unchanged, namely: recognition of the entire unit; external arbitration and grievance procedures for harassment and abuse; satisfactory wage increases; and an expansion of healthcare benefits.

The division within the union, as seen by the contract rejection, has paralleled a division within the committee itself. The Bargaining Committee’s votes on the strike pause and the tentative contract reflected a 7-3 split among committee members, with three regularly dissenting members. The weekend following the announcement, members of Bwog Staff spoke with these three dissenting members of the Bargaining Committee—Joanna Lee, Lilian Coie, and Tristan du Puy—about their perspective on the contract rejection, ideological disagreements within the union, what solidarity means, and what might be ahead for the union. 

The transcript of this conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and annotated with links to certain information discussed in our conversation. 

In general, in an ideal world where you are able to completely fulfill your roles, how would you describe what it means to be on the Bargaining Committee and what this kind of work entails?

Lilian: So I guess, what we’ve been up to this entire year has been, I think, what most units experience during contract negotiations because we’ve had such a long bargaining process. The first year of bargaining was very difficult for the Bargaining Committee because the framework agreement of 2018 said that we were not allowed to strike during that time. But this year, since we have open bargaining, and we were able to strike, we come to the table each week, with a new proposal for certain things to be in our contract on compensation, on health care. We go back and forth with the University, the University points out their issues, they give us their draft back, we point out issues, we present arguments. People come and give testimonials, to provide evidence that there are discrimination issues, or that they need better health care, or that they’re being abused in some sort of way. And so we get to these meetings each week, we figure out what we want in the contract, we try and talk to organizers to see what priorities are for people in the unit and what things seem to be bottom lines for what actually needs to be in the contract, and things that they would absolutely vote “no” on if they were not included in the contract. And I think that was very important this time around, because we did get a “no” vote. There were a lot of things that people were expecting to be in the contract that didn’t end up being in the contract, and that definitely swayed people to disagree with having a contract at all. Because it wasn’t good enough.

So, even though you have people who will come in and give evidence, give testimonials, and you’re interacting with other organizers, you’re really the mainstays interacting with the administration in this kind of negotiating process, correct? 

Lilian: Right. And we, at the end of the day, have the final power, all of us together as the Bargaining Committee. We voted to say that, “Yes, this is our tentative agreement. We’re going to present this to the union for ratification, so everybody can vote on it up or down.” And we saw that a majority [of the Bargaining Committee] agreed with the tentative agreement this time around, even though we three did not.

So, I think now that we’ve established what your roles are—for people not familiar with the strike, seeing the resignation of the Bargaining Committee, hearing about the contract rejection, I think it came as kind of a shock. I think the assumption was, “Oh, hooray, we have an agreement! Now they will ratify it, and everything’s great. And we can go back to not thinking about grad students.” But my understanding is that definitely wasn’t the case, and that there were some long term issues that ultimately culminated in these two events. So, from your perspective, what was happening long term that led to these events?

Joanna: I think that there were different visions of the union and different visions of how we approached bargaining on the Bargaining Committee. And the three of us from Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, we believe in a type of unionism that’s called, I mean, it has different variants, but broadly, ‘social movement unionism,’ or ‘social justice unionism,’ or some people also call it ‘rank and file’ [or] ‘reform unionism.’ They’re slightly different, but they’re all connected. Often, these types of reform movements within unions, set themselves sort of against a dominant mode of unionism, which is what we broadly call ‘business unionism.’ Business unionism, or some people call it ‘corporate unionism,’ is a different approach. It’s an approach that emerged partly because of policies in the Reagan era that were very anti-labor. And so I think trade unions were put on the defensive, and because of that, there’s a general approach to unionism that believes in having good relationships with the employer and making change through these very boardroom-like negotiations. And [it] has a bit of what I call a service model of organizing, where you pay dues to the union, like a service fee. So it’s like, “I pay dues to a union and then the union does something back for me.” That’s one approach to unionism. And it is a sort of dominant mode, I think, in the US, especially. Tristan and I are international students, and there are many international grad students as well—so there are different traditions of unionism in other countries. But what I think the three of us—and Lilian and Tristan, you can speak for yourselves, too—we advocate a model of unionism, called social movement unionism, that, I would say, is characterized by a few things. One is the idea of bottom-up collective struggle and a participatory democracy. So the idea that workers have a direct say in negotiations, the idea that the point of the union is to struggle collectively against the employer. That’s a very different [relationship to the employer] than a type of professional negotiating relationship with the employer. And I would also say it’s connected to rethinking what the purpose of trade unions are, and connecting it more broadly with other social movements. So for example, at NYU, where their AWDU [Academic Workers for a Democratic Union] caucus is very much in leadership positions, they, for example, are starting to think of what a social movement contract looks like. And so they’re advocating for things like cops off campus and sanctuary campus as part of the contract demands. And these are unusual, because contract demands are usually wages, health benefits, the standard workplace issues. But they’re starting to think beyond the economic issues to think about the connection between your trade union and the broader social movements of Black Lives Matter, broader social movements of Abolish ICE. So, I would say that our approach to unionism is characterized by these two things. And I think that that informs some of the disagreements that emerged in the Bargaining Committee that led to us trying to advocate for listening to workers and what workers were demanding and really keeping those demands as the bottom line, versus an approach of saying, “This is Columbia’s best offer. That’s the only thing that’s winnable, because Columbia says that that’s the only thing that’s possible. And so we’re just going to accept those terms and put it for ratification.”

Lilian: I think this also ties into the broader history of our bargaining, since, in order to get Columbia to the bargaining table, we had to sign the framework agreement, which said that Columbia would bargain and it gave away our right to strike for a year. Giving away our right to strike for a year meant that for a lot of that first year, there was no leverage for the workers to use against Columbia in order to actually get any concessions from Columbia. So it was a very long time of being steeped in Columbia’s and the University’s logic, and being told these arguments over and over, and having so many instances of the university saying, “No, we can’t do this, no, we can’t do that.” Like Joanna was saying, you start to believe it, you start to believe that the University really can’t afford to pay us a living wage, even though this isn’t true. So we had to fight that throughout this entire year of forcing the University to give us what we need by using our strike power and public pressure in order to get them [the union’s demands] instead of thinking, “Well, you know, Columbia really doesn’t want to give us dental, they say they can’t afford it. So I think it’s probably just best we drop it.” That was one of the core disagreements amongst the Bargaining Committee: how hard to push Columbia. Should we actually be combative at the table? Should we actually be arguing more? Is it really important to have this amicable relationship with them when they are keeping us from so much of what we need? The living wage, protections from abuses. I think that that’s something that we need to do better the next time around. Putting our foot down. Columbia’s strategy was really to not give very much at all, for the first two years entirely, and then, right as we got to the strike, right as we started, going into mediation, then they gave us some. And so we need to take this in turn. We need to have our own hard bottom lines and say, “We won’t have a contract without these three things.” And if we don’t give in, we’re a lot more likely to get something than if we accept what they tell us at the bargaining table. They will always try to convince us that we don’t deserve this, or we already have enough, and that we’re asking for too much, or we’re students, and because we’re students, we don’t deserve these things that other workers get, even though we also work. That was a lot of the conflict that happened this year for us.

Tristan: I’ll just name one last point. But I think we’re also facing a very—I mean, Columbia is not any university. Columbia has been significantly more anti-union than any other university in the US. Unionization efforts at Columbia started around 2000. There was a 1999, or 1998 NYU decision, which created the right for grad workers to unionize in the US, and NYU got their first union at that time. We tried for five years; we had two big strikes. And then there was a Bush administration decision [the 2004 Brown University decision], which canceled our rights. So, our efforts collapsed at that time. And NYU got their union canceled: they had a first contract, they got a recognized union, the right was canceled, their union disappeared. And it took them eight years to fight back and recreate a union at NYU. And we tried to do the same. But, Columbia didn’t give us a union. We had to go to the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] and recreate that right, to force Columbia to recognize us. And we had that 2016 decision, which recreated the right for grad workers to unionize all across the US. But that was not enough. We had to go to the NLRB a second time, to force Columbia to recognize our votes, which was creating the union. And then Columbia would not even start bargaining with us after that. And UAW, without contacting anyone from the unit—no students were aware of that—dealt with Columbia behind doors and got that bargaining agreement in 2018 saying, “You can’t strike for one year, and then we will agree to start bargaining with that. And then we’ll agree to start bargaining with you and we’ll give you arbitration and we’ll give you full recognition of your unit.” So, we couldn’t strike for one year. And then Columbia went back on their two promises on these two elements. Columbia has spent millions trying to prevent us from actually getting a union and a contract. And I think what we’ve seen here is also, our contract proposal, which was up to ratification, was leaving out so many people in our units. All the sixth and seventh years [PhD students] couldn’t have extra funding, like funding extensions, because they couldn’t do the research during COVID. We didn’t get summer stipends [for sixth and seventh-year PhD students]. Really poor health care improvements. Absolutely nothing on no cops on campus. [Nothing] regarding Columbia’s gentrification efforts in Harlem. We didn’t have full recognition of our unit. We didn’t have external arbitration. And I think people who were really like, “This is a contract, we finally have a contract, we need to sign it, because that’s something,” forgot that a contract is something. But a contract is something that is way less strong than actual solidarity and strike power, which is honestly our biggest power here. And just a union. And we want the union because we want the union, because we want to say all student workers, graduates, MAs, undergrads, show solidarity, are here to help each other. And that’s where our strength lies. Our strength is not a legal document that we can then try to enforce, go to courts, have years and years of procedure to try to have Columbia respect, word by word, what’s written on that contract. And I think us winning the “no” vote means that the majority of our unit recognizes that yes, we want a contract because more rights are obviously good, but we want a contract that brings unity, and that is inclusive. And that contract before was not inclusive. We cannot give away our solidarity to get a piece of paper. We can get that piece of paper, but only if it’s built on solidarity, and only if it actually makes our union stronger. And that’s, I think, the message of the “no” vote.

What are the possibilities now that this first contract has been rejected? Is it possible that a contract could never be reached? What is like the short term outlook for the next few months? And then looking beyond that? 

Joanna: One, I think the intention is to continue refining this plan with the unit, in conversation. So there are general body meetings, they’re coming up, where I think we will discuss next steps. But the first step we took was to reconstitute the Bargaining Committee. Right. And that’s because I think, as Tristan explained in his email, and as we shared in an email to the entire unit, the outcome of the vote is a sign, right, a signal, that there’s a gap between what the unit wants and what the Bargaining Committee recommended. And so, the Bargaining Committee, starting next week, the three of us will be stepping down [alongside the other seven members]—and some of us may run again for positions—so that an election can restore the democratic mandate. So, if any of the three of us get reelected, that’s a sign that the membership still believes in us as elected members to represent them. And then we’re just going to have to go back to the bargaining table and keep organizing, keep mobilizing. And I think what’s really clear to Columbia—the vote itself is a signal to Columbia, right? The vote itself says to Columbia, “Your final offer was not good enough. And if you’re not giving us something good enough, then you’re going to expect further action from this union, that will take the form of more collective struggle together, petitions that might also take the form of a subsequent strike.” Columbia is just gonna have to give us a better “final offer” if they actually want the contract to get ratified.

Lilian: So I really like this question, because this “no” vote was really exciting. The fact that we won the “no” vote, that people agreed with us that they said, “No, no, this isn’t good enough. We need to fight for more, we want to fight for more.” It really encouraged us to think bigger. We’ve been in contact with the Bargaining Committee members at NYU, and also at Harvard. When we were voting on our tentative agreement, we actually heard that at NYU, they were using our hourly wage against them. Our hourly wage [proposed in the contract] was $17, $18.50 the next year and then $20, the year after that, when at NYU, they were already at $20. So at the table, they were asking for more, of course, and NYU said, “Well, you have better than Columbia is going to get, so what are you talking about?” And then, having the “no” vote, that gave NYU power; our “no” vote helped them. And now Harvard is also starting to renegotiate their next contract. At Harvard, Harvard University and their lawyers, they used a lot of the same tactics Columbia used. Columbia took inspiration from Harvard. For example, not giving them [the union] third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment. That was something that hurt us a lot. And they also only have a health fund; they have multiple health funds for dental, dependents, medical care. That’s where Columbia got the idea for us. And now that we’re both renegotiating contracts, we can work together to make sure that both of our contracts, in parallel, win these things that we were not able to win in the past. Harvard is gearing up for a strike in the fall. And I think it would be really strong—this is just me, thinking big, and just getting excited about the future—it would be so incredible to have a paired strike with us and Harvard, both working for the same things, both with shared bottom lines, and working off of wherever NYU is, they may well be in a very different place. But it’s very exciting to think about the future and all the different things that are possible now.

Tristan: I think I said it in email as well, but I think also, what we really want now is that the Organizing Committee and the actual unit, like all union members, decides on the timeline of bargaining, if we’re going to go back to bargaining in August or in September, if we want to go back to strike. And I think even more importantly, what articles in the contract we want to reopen and continue bargaining on. And I think we have personal opinions, now, these are just personal opinions, because in a few days, we won’t be elected representatives anymore. And people should decide. And I think honestly, people should decide before they elect the BC [Bargaining Committee] to give them a clear mandate that they have to follow afterward. I think the Bargaining Committee that should come in the future should just be a bargaining working group where people—they have a commitment, they have to go to bargaining sessions, that’s a pain but, okay, it’s great that they do that, but their role stops there. And we have a big deficit in our unit in that we don’t have bylaws, and we’re working to get bylaws now. But because the BC is the only elected body in our unit, the BC tends to be the de facto decision-making body for everything in the unit, which it should not be. I think proposals, dates, bargaining, schedules, all that stuff, that should be decided by the membership. The BC should just follow. And I think what we’re going to be working on, not just the three of us, everyone in the unit, in next month is really getting that structure there and getting the mandate and that clear strategy. And then when we have that, and we have consensus and unity, we’ll get our new BC and we’ll go back to bargaining with Columbia.

I have a point of clarification on that, and then I want to return to what Lilian brought up about solidarity with other grad workers. But first, to get a sense, timeline-wise: the first priority is getting a mandate saying, “Okay, this is what we want the Bargaining Committee to do,” then having the actual Bargaining Committee elections, and then moving forward and thinking about, “Okay, do we want to return to bargaining, when do we want to return to bargaining?”

Joanna: Returning to bargaining is a yes, for sure. It’s just a matter of when and who is going to be doing that post-elections, because we have to elect the people who are going to be at the bargaining table.

Right. And the re-election of the Bargaining Committee is something that ideally will be happening over the summer in the next few months. 

Lilian: Yeah, so the election of the Bargaining Committee is supposed to be paired—the Organizing Committee decided this—that the election of the Bargaining Committee would be paired with an election for bylaws, so there’s a lot going to be happening in the next few months. And hopefully, the timeline will be much longer, so there’s a really long time for people to be able to look at candidates, look at the bylaws, decide what they want, you know, look at other bylaws at other unions, see what we want to change, make different—that sort of thing. And so hopefully, because it is the summer, we will have a little more time for people to make these important decisions.

Joanna: The timeline that was voted on was four weeks of campaigning and two weeks of voting. But I think once that’s done, we would want to resume bargaining during the summer. Bargaining is something that can happen during the summer, especially with the Zoom thing. So I think that that’s the intention.

Great, thank you for clarifying that. Like I said, I want to return and just think a bit more broadly about, as Lilian talked about, collaborating with Harvard, with NYU, with all these other grad student labor movements that are happening now. What does solidarity with other grad students look like? What might that be? 

Joanna: [There is] a website called Bargaining for the Common Good, which is an approach to bargaining that’s advocated by certain UAW organizers actually, so it was born out of some people in UAW trying to shift—again, it’s related to what I said earlier about reform unionism versus business unionism. Bargaining for the Common Good centers around actually connecting organizations, social movements, trade unions, so that when you bargain for your contract, you’re also thinking about all these other groups. And it’s by joining up with all these other groups that you have more power. So, an example being NYU just got $25 per hour, hourly rates. That’s gonna be so helpful for whoever is bargaining with Columbia now, because Columbia gave us something like $17, $18.5, $20. And $20 is just what NYU had won five years ago. So it’s actually really bad for NYU, currently having negotiations, and Harvard currently having negotiations, that our contract, once ratified, only gets like $20 per hour, because it’s not fighting for more. If NYU is $25 per hour, now we can come back, whoever is going back to the table can say, “Look, NYU, they get paid $25 per hour, that should be the minimum for our workers as well.” That’s how we can actually collectively raise the floor for all grad workers in the US.

Lilian: Can I clarify just with Tristan, Joanna? Did they get $25? Like, did NYU agree to $25? Or did they just present at the table?

Tristan: They presented it as a proposal during mediation. [Editor’s note: NYU has since raised their proposed starting rate to $26 per hour.]

Joanna: NYU presented the proposal? Nice. 

Tristan: They had to drop tuition waivers, and they got it in return. I think Joanna’s point is great. I think part of the solidarity we have between the grad workers unions is just that every contract sets a precedent. Then I think every strike sets a precedent as well. Like, the UC wildcat strike last year brought so much hope in the power of strike for everyone in the US, in the grad workers movements. But I think, also we communicate a lot with each other, we come to each other’s rallies. Just last week, GWC sent 20 people down to GSOC’s [Graduate Student Organizing Committee] rally at NYU to picket with them. We brought food. And I think that’s solidarity on all grounds. We want to get contracts. But we also are here to help each other, discuss strategies at the table. When at the bargaining table, Columbia would say something, we would ask our friends at UC, Harvard, Brown, stuff like that, what they had, what their lawyers had said, why they had what they have. And that’s always been really helpful. And just as Lilian mentioned as well, if we get to strike with Harvard in the fall, we could also envision saying none of our unit is going to give up until we get that in the contracts. And that really binds our struggle together. And that just doubles our power as well.

If they want to, how could undergrads be supportive and show solidarity in the coming months? And what about the strike, the union, negotiations, and the place of grad students in a university in general do you think that undergrads need to understand?

Lilian: They should run! They should run! Undergraduates are part of the union. That’s something that we’ve been talking about behind the scenes, like being named Graduate Workers of Columbia, even though our unit also includes undergraduates—you know, should it be student workers of Columbia? I think that was something that we found out this year, that a lot of undergrads didn’t know that they could be part of the union. They didn’t know that this was their struggle also. And I think part of that is making sure to reach out to more undergraduates, making sure that they are informed, that they are on the Organizing Committee, that they’re coming to meetings, and maybe on the Bargaining Committee too. It would be great to have people run for those seats, to make sure that their interests are represented at the table. Because as much as we talk to other organizers, as much as we talk to people on the ground, no one understands their situation better than somebody in that situation. So is it solidarity, if you’re working for your own rights? So I would say, get involved. This is about you, too. And if they want certain things at the table, if they want certain things in their contract, they should talk to us, they should get involved.

Joanna: I think undergrads were incredibly supportive of this recent strike. YDSA was really, really supportive. Our demands were also included in the tuition strike, which I think was incredible. And we had a lot of undergraduate organizers come to the picket line, speak at the rallies. I remember when undergrads also were sending like a ton of emails—there was a snitch hotline, I think, [because] Deantini told everyone to inform the University whether or not their instructor was on strike. I know a ton of people just wrote back to that email saying, “This is a horrible thing that you’re doing.” And I think that that was really helpful. I mean, they [the University] definitely abandoned attempts to do that after that. So I think that’s really helpful. Signing emails and letters in solidarity with your instructors if they’re on strike is really helpful. And anyone can come to the picket line in solidarity too. We saw a lot of that, and I think more of that would be fantastic. Especially if people—I mean, presumably, any subsequent strike might happen when we are in person.

Lilian: Yeah, I really thought it was hilarious: people submitting fake classes, fake people to the hotline. It was my favorite.

Tristan: I’d just add that undergrads have provided us with the best Zoom backgrounds ever. And they have brought life to our bargaining sessions throughout the strike. So, I think that was actually really great for morale for everyone.

Lilian: That was so good, watching the administration get mad just because there were so many videos in the background. That was another highlight of the past few months.

When asked for additional comment following the news of the vote to end the strike, Tristan commented: “It’s a good thing as it will allow our members to get their strike pay—and it hopefully sets the path for a new strike authorization vote over the summer, in preparation for a strike next fall.”

The GWC-UAW’s official website can be found here.

Image via Shane Maughn