In a close vote, graduate student workers have decided against the proposed contract from the bargaining committee and the University.

In a 1093 to 970 vote (53% to 47%) the members of the GWC-UAW, the campus union for graduate and undergraduate student workers, decided to reject the contract agreed upon by the GWC-UAW bargaining committee and University representatives. The results were announced yesterday evening and were followed by a statement from the GWC-UAW explaining that the proposed agreement for a first contract “failed to meaningfully address” certain key issues, such as greater protection for those who experience discrimination and sexual harassment while working or the recognition of all workers in the union. Their statement asserted the GWC-UAW’s determination to continue mobilizing and fighting for a satisfactory first contract for all union members. “While we recognize the urgency of having the protections of a union contract,” the statement reads, “student workers have demonstrated their dedication to continue fighting for a contract we deserve.” After reaching out to the administration, Bwog received a statement from Dan Driscoll, Vice President of Human Resources, expressing disappointment that the proposed “fair” Agreement was not voted through to approval. The two statements can be read in their entirety below.  

The rejection comes after a weeklong voting period from April 21 at 9 am to April 30 at 5 pm, where all bargaining unit members were eligible to vote either “Yes” or “No” on the tentatively agreed-upon contract. Reactions to the proposed contract were wide-ranging and outspoken amidst growing criticism of the bargaining committee, a group of ten elected graduate student workers charged with heading negotiations with the University. Many “rank and file,” or non-bargaining committee graduate student workers felt that the core issues of the strike, particularly procedures for grievance and arbitration in cases of harassment and a substantial wage increase, were insufficiently addressed by the proposed contract. “The entire Physics Dept will be voting NO on [the agreement]. This is a shame of a contract,” one graduate student in the physics department wrote, claiming that the contract includes “no living wage, no neutral arbitration, an effective pay cut and a discount coupon to be treated by Columbia dental instead of proper insurance, <$30/student to cover medical expenses.” 

Several workers also took issue with the contract’s letter of understanding on April 19 that states that “students who are compensated on an hourly basis who (i) provide instructional services for an average of less than fifteen (15) hours a week over the course of a semester or (ii) provide non-instructional services are excluded from the bargaining unit.” “Don’t leave workers behind,” one poster against the contract read in a tweet urging bargaining unit members to “vote down this contract that excludes rather than includes and leaves us all poor. Better no contract than a bad one.” “If this contract gets ratified, hundreds of workers who have gone on strike and organized for this union will be excluded,” one dissenting bargaining committee member, Joanna Lee, tweeted prior to the results announcement. “We will give up our legal right to a full scope of recognition defined by the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board]. What kind of union would do that to its workers?” 

Yet many remained in vocal support of the contract, showcasing how evenly split the final result was. “We shouldn’t underestimate the value of an enforceable contract,” one graduate student claimed before voting had closed. “Rejecting this agreement will once again leave critical benefits for grad workers up to the whims of the university. Approving it will give @GWCUAW a strong foundation on which to build in the future. Vote YES!”

The GWC-UAW and the University will now return to the bargaining table to renegotiate for a new contract. Whether this will involve a resumption of the strike, which has been officially paused since April 5, is currently unclear, as are the gains or losses that could potentially result from further negotiations. “Columbia might not uphold all of our prior tentative agreements, and it is likely that we would not achieve the same or a better offer without significant additional mobilization,” the GWC-UAW claimed in a post endorsing the contract, though what “significant additional mobilization” looks like is still undetermined. Vice President Driscoll stated that the University “believe[s] the Agreement is fair and addresses all of the issues set out by the Union,” giving no suggestions as to what the next steps Columbia will take at the bargaining table will be.

As news of the contract rejection spread on Friday night, however, reactions among union members against the contract were jubilant, with some calling the result a “people’s victory.” The GWC-UAW affirmed its dedication to ensuring a contract its union members “deserve” in its statement: “We will not quit.”

Statement from GWC-UAW Local 2110 on April 30:

Today, we concluded the ratification vote on a proposed agreement for our first union contract. After a vote with tremendous participation from our unit, the ballots have been counted and the majority of voters (1,093-970) felt compelled to reject the offer made by Columbia and mobilize further for a strong first contract.

In short, the University’s final offer failed to meaningfully address a number of issues that are pressing to our unit, including protections for those who experience discrimination and sexual harassment at work and recognition for all members of our unit. While we recognize the urgency of having the protections of a union contract, student workers have demonstrated their dedication to continue fighting for a contract we deserve. We will not quit.

Over the next few weeks, we will be charting a course forward, which will include further mobilizations, in order to achieve our goal of a more equitable and just Columbia.

Statement from Vice President of Human Resources Dan Driscoll at 9:37 pm on April 30:

Columbia negotiated with GWC-UAW’s elected bargaining team in good faith over two years and more than 70 negotiating sessions. We are disappointed that GWC-UAW members did not approve the Agreement that the two bargaining committees worked so hard to achieve. We believe the Agreement is fair and addresses all of the issues set out by the Union, including changes to the EOAA process, increases in compensation and improvements in benefits such as healthcare support and child care.

Update on May 6 at 6:04 pm to include a statement from Ira Katznelson, Interim Provost

In an email sent to students on May 6, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson expressed disappointment in the rejection of the tentative contract between the University and the GWC-UAW. In his email, he detailed changes that would have been included in the agreement such as increased compensation and a new appeals process for EOAA decisions. Had these terms been approved, he states that this agreement “would have placed Columbia in the lead with the most comprehensive and most robust graduate worker contract at any private university in the country.” The full statement can be read below. 

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Not long ago, I wrote to express pleasure that the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW and the University had reached a tentative agreement with the help of effective federal mediation. That contract was put to a vote by the bargaining unit of some 4,800 student employees, about 2,000 of whom cast ballots. The balloting produced a close defeat for the union’s positive recommendation.

The quest for the perfect has postponed the very good. Of course, the University must respect the outcome of the referendum, albeit with deep concern for the missed chance to soon put into effect improvements, in some matters dramatic, to many aspects of student-worker lives. This delay of uncertain duration is a matter of widely-shared keen disappointment.

We are stuck in the status quo, a manifestly less good situation for all. In this context, it is important that we all understand what has been sidelined, and which benefits cannot be put in place until a contract is ratified. Scheduled to begin this summer, the three-year agreement would have guaranteed an array of noteworthy financial benefits and would have pioneered the right to independent appeals within the University’s equal opportunity and affirmative action (EOAA) process. 

For doctoral student employees on twelve-month appointments the tentative agreement would have established a uniform minimum total support level in 2021-22 of $42,350, pro-rated for shorter appointments, followed by two 3% annual increments. The agreement also provided immediate compensation increases of no less than 5% for undergraduates and master’s students who hold appointments, increasing annually by 3%. Finally, it would have raised the minimum hourly rate for “casual workers” performing instructional services from $15 to $17 per hour immediately, and to $20 per hour by year three. Absent a contract, stipend levels and hourly compensation remain stuck at current levels.

These features do not exhaust the proposed material gains contained in the 36-page tentative contract. Among others, the provisions would include important health and child care benefits: expanded health insurance coverage of premiums for PhD students and their dependents; a support fund to help cover out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses; an enhanced dental discount to 25% from 10% for expenses above the free routine annual visit; a full doubling of the current child care subsidy; and assistance for adoptions and foster parenting. Also included in the document are generous vacation and leave of absence arrangements, as well as professional development support. Until we have an approved contract, current benefit levels will continue. 

Nonetheless, the University will honor the commitment to allocate a portion of recently-awarded federal stimulus funds in the form of emergency aid to doctoral students on nine-month appointments. The process to apply for this assistance will be announced shortly. 

International students face difficult and ongoing visa, travel, and health challenges. The contract guarantees policies the University has been practicing that allow such students who cannot get to campus to perform their duties remotely. It also confirms that they will be re-employed once they regain work authorization.

One of the most significant provisions in the tentative agreement would have been the establishment of a new appeals process for EOAA decisions. With an enacted contract, all Columbia affiliates would have gained the right to appeal EOAA outcomes to a neutral appeals officer, chosen from an independent panel in whose creation GWC-UAW would have participated. EOAA remains unchanged until we achieve a ratified agreement.

In all, after two years and some seventy bargaining sessions, the agreement endorsed by both bargaining teams would have placed Columbia in the lead with the most comprehensive and most robust graduate worker contract at any private university in the country. 

The GWC-UAW is presently assessing its preferences and options. Too much time has been lost; too many accomplishments remain dormant. As we look forward to the University emerging from the pandemic, we very much hope to move beyond division and strife, joining forces in the fall to ever more effectively pursue our core purposes of scholarship and teaching. This achievement still beckons.


Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History

Image via Shira Michaeli