As Fall 2021 gets underway, the Student Workers of Columbia (previously the GWC-UAW) are gearing up for further bargaining with the University and potential strike action to gain a satisfactory contract.
On March 15, 2021, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW, now the Student Workers of Columbia or SWC) organized the largest strike in Columbia history, with over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers agreeing to halt all academic activities—including teaching, assisting professors, and researching—until the administration agreed to a contract with their desired terms of employment. The key demands of the Union were higher yearly and hourly stipends, expanded access to health care and premium programs, the establishment of a union shop, access to third party arbitration when dealing with cases of workplace harassment, and a summer stipend to accommodate the financial stress student workers faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strike received local and national attention, gaining the support from Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16) and New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, both of whom have spoken out against workplace harassment and the exploitation of workers. Furthermore, the three-week long halt in studies, especially during the difficult online semester and the COVID-19 pandemic, took a heavy toll on undergraduate students, who felt that this gap in academic work left them unprepared for the future, lost in the confusing and conflicting communications from both the administration and GWC-UAW, and shocked at the University’s refusal to meet many of the Union’s demands.
On April 2, the Bargaining Committee and the University agreed to pause the strike in order to finish the school year and enter a period of mediation, allowing an independent third party to negotiate between the two deadlocked parties. This mediation was met with trepidation and anger by many “rank and file” (non-Bargaining Committee) members of the union, who did not want to give away their strike leverage. On April 19, the two parties had seemed to have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, which provided a compromise on many of the key elements of the contract but left out other GWC-UAW demands, such as changes in the procedure for grievance and arbitration in cases of harassment and a substantial wage increase. The agreement did not last long: on April 30, a slim majority of 53% of Union members voted to reject the University’s proposal. The rejection of the tentative contract indicated just how deep simmering divisions within the student union and its Bargaining Committee had become. Facing the end of the Spring semester and calls for the Committee’s reconstitution, the strike officially ended in May, coinciding with the collective resignation of the Bargaining Committee and the setting of dates for new elections in the summer.
Overall, this late period of the Spring 2021 semester left many—undergraduate students, student workers, and administrators alike—uncertain about the future of the GWC-UAW and whether or not a strike of this scale could possibly happen again. And now with the summer shifts of changes in leadership and an official rebranding from the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) to the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) on the union’s side and changes in the stipend pay distribution on the administration’s, this upcoming fall semester appears set to become another important moment for student workers at Columbia University. So, before the school year starts and the first official bargaining session begins on August 25, here is a breakdown of the current status of the Student Workers of Columbia and what to look out for as the Fall 2021 semester starts up.
Bwog reached out to both members of the Bargaining Committee of the Student Workers of Columbia and a University Spokesperson for comment. The Bargaining Committee submitted an official statement, which will be referenced below. The University Spokesperson directed Bwog to Columbia’s website on graduate student unionization for their perspective.
The Student Workers Of Columbia And The Summer Election
The contract rejection hammered home that the approach of the Bargaining Committee with the University was out of step with the desires of the union at large. The summer elections, which took place between late June and early July, sought to address this misalignment and involved a rehaul of several aspects of the union. The ten vacated Bargaining Committee seats were only a part of the ballot: the unit’s first bylaws, drafted by union members in May and early June, and a proposal to change the official name of the union to Student Workers of Columbia—more fully encompassing all those represented by the union—were also up for ratification. Alongside the election of the entire new committee, both these bylaws and the name change were approved.
The new Bargaining Committee is notably different in character than the Committee of Spring 2021, both in ideology and unity. Not only had the Bargaining Committee of the spring frequently sparred with rank-and-file members over choices such as the contract agreement and mediation, but tensions were evident within the committee, as well. “There were different visions of the union and different visions of how we approached bargaining on the Bargaining Committee,” Joanna Lee, a member of the previous Bargaining Committee, told Bwog, reflecting on her perspective of the internal split. “Some of the disagreements that emerged in the Bargaining Committee [were] us [myself, Lilian Coie, and Tristan Du Puy] trying to advocate for listening to workers and […] keeping those demands as the bottom line, versus an approach of saying, ‘This is Columbia’s best offer.’”
The elections of this summer have so far resulted in a much more unified Bargaining Committee, both internally and in its relationship to the rank and file. All ten of the newly elected members are part of the same group, Worker Empowerment, focused on “bottom-up collective action.” Bwog reached out to the Bargaining Committee to speak on their new membership, structure, and goals for the union in the upcoming fall semester. “We are changing the way we do things and have instituted new mechanisms for student workers to be more involved [in] every step of the process,” one member wrote. “We have been meeting every week with unit members in different working groups—Non-Discrimination and Harassment, Compensation, Recognition, Health Benefits—where we draft articles, discuss ideas for campaigns, and work together to strategize how to win what our unit needs.”
Accompanying this new Bargaining Committee are the new bylaws, which boast a strong focus on unit involvement. For instance, Article 5, Section 7 of the new bylaws states that “GWC derives all its powers from its members, the highest decision-making body of the unit,” and that the Unit Officers, who serve to represent the membership, must not pass decisions that contradict those of the whole unit. Article 6, Section 6.4 prohibits sidebars—or meetings strictly between the Bargaining Committee, the UAW, the University, and lawyers—and ensures that all bargaining sessions are open, allowing all members of the unit to attend and participate. Lastly, all contract proposals must be presented in front of the whole unit and voted on before negotiating with the University, and if the membership votes down on a contract recommended for ratification by the Bargaining Committee, then elections for a new Bargaining Committee will automatically take place, as dictated by Article 7, Section 3.
With the restructuring of their framework, the SWC ensures accountability to the rank-and-file and plays to its biggest strength: its size. If the number of members is roughly the same as last spring’s (2,000 members at minimum), the new bylaws make it so that the whole unit must work together if they want to get anything done. “All of our Bargaining Committee meetings are open now,” one member of the Bargaining Committee wrote to Bwog, “and so anyone can drop in and see what we are working on, give input on strategy, and collaborate, which helps the Bargaining Committee gain new perspectives. With more hands on deck, it also means that things are done more efficiently.”
A Call For Summer Bargaining And The New Stipend Policy
Though the new Bargaining Committee has been in place since July, no bargaining sessions between the committee and the University have taken place over the summer. “The University refused to meet with us over the summer,” one member of the Bargaining Committee wrote to Bwog. The Committee claims to have requested bargaining dates soon after their election but said that “[Vice President of Human Relations] Dan Driscoll said they [the University] were on vacation and offered August 25 as the first bargaining session.” With the lack of bargaining, interactions between the University and the union were largely put on hold for the summer until the University’s July 17 announcement regarding a change to the stipend distribution policy. Traditionally, the University gives certain graduate student workers a lump sum of their academic stipend at the beginning of the year. However, these stipends will now be distributed in periodic installments, which became a central point of tension for the SWC. But what exactly is this new policy, and why does the Bargaining Committee—and the union at large—take such issue with it?
According to the Columbia Administration’s website on graduate student unionization, graduate student workers who had financial support through both a semi-monthly payroll and stipend will now receive their allotted stipend money through periodic installments throughout their appointments [the period of time they are hired as instructors] instead of through the original lump sum. The change in policy applies to Teaching Fellows, Research Fellows, and Preceptors appointed in GSAS, GSAPP, and SIPA, as well as to Teaching Assistants in SEAS. According to the University, student workers only receiving support through the semi-monthly payroll will not be affected by the new policy, and “[the] overall stipend amount disbursed for the fall term will not be affected in any way by this change in the payment schedule, nor will the tax withholding.”
A breakdown of the stipend change provided by the SWC explains that the University traditionally gave Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, and Research Fellows in GSAS, GSAPP, and SIPA, and Teaching Assistants in SEAS 50% of their stipends at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters—a package worth over $10,000. However, under the new policy, student workers would only receive an initial $2,600 stipend installment, which amounts to 12.52% of the nine-month stipends. The remainder of the package would then be distributed semi-monthly beginning in October.
The main reason why the University decided to change the distribution method was in response to future negotiations with the graduate student union. “The change in the stipend disbursal schedule was caused by the need to standardize the employment relations and conditions of all students who will be covered by the future contract with the graduate student union,” the official statement reads. The University emphasized the word “uniformity” in their justification for the late change, reasoning that the periodic payment installments would “put all student officers on the same footing in terms of the timing of pay and support resources.” The new plan supposedly allows the stipend payments to align with the living expenses “experienced over the term,” as well as how other employees at the University are paid, regardless of position.
At the end of their statement, the University addresses the main concern of students who relied on the upfront stipend payment for financial support, offering supplemental funds to students who need special assistance. Providing additional support to those who need it will remain standard practice; if a student worker needs more than the allotted $2,600 to pay for living expenses, extra financial assistance in the form of a loan will be distributed at the beginning of the year prior to the semi-monthly payroll and first stipend installation. The University acknowledged that the lateness in change may have caused financial stress for many student workers, but they reemphasized their additional support to help any students who may need it.
According to a Thursday, July 29 email from the SWC to Vice President Driscoll, the University’s announcement to change the stipend policy came a month before graduate student workers were to receive the scheduled distribution of money. These expenses often cover start-of-semester needs such as housing, groceries, and healthcare. “The last-minute change kept almost $8,000 out of the pockets of workers,” the Bargaining Committee wrote in their provided statement to Bwog, “many of whom are facing moving costs as the University is requiring that all teaching be done in person.”
Prior to their email exchanges with Driscoll, the Student Workers of Columbia had published a link to a new and widely-signed petition on their website on July 28, demanding that the University pay their student workers the full stipend on time and agree to negotiate with the Bargaining Committee. The petition brings forth many issues the SWC believes the University failed to consider when designing the new stipend policy, including the difficulties in securing jobs during the pandemic, travel restrictions, health complications, and family obligations many student workers faced this past summer. Furthermore, the $8,000 reduction in the initial payment, according to the petition, came at a “uniquely dangerous” time, coinciding with the end of the pandemic moratorium on residential evictions. For the SWC, the normal stipend distribution plan better supports student interests.
Furthermore, in the eyes of the SWC, any change in student workers’ stipend falls under the issue of compensation, which is a mandatory bargaining topic between the SWC and Columbia. In other words, as the Bargaining Committee of the SWC expressed in their July 29 email to Driscoll, any change in payment methods must be agreed upon by both parties. And, because the last-minute modification in stipend policy occurred before the first bargaining session of the 2021-2022 school year, the University must retract their change and wait “until we reach an agreement over it in bargaining.”
Driscoll responded via email to the SWC on July 30, claiming that stipends are granted to students regardless of employment status, so the policy change “is not subject to bargaining.” He then reemphasized the University’s focus on uniformity among all employees, echoing the point that the new stipend distribution method would allow all student officers to be provided enough living expenses over an even period of appointment time, and that this new schedule matched those of “most universities.” Driscoll then referred back to the Financial Aid Office to assist anyone struggling with expenses that cannot be covered by the $2,600, as similarly suggested by the University’s official July 17 statement.
The dispute over the new stipend policy has become part of a larger disagreement between the SWC and the University—what kind of “equality” Columbia is supposed to achieve. For the University, it is equality of treatment, constructing a whole payment schedule centered around regulated, uniform distributions of stipends to all workers (regardless of status) that are promised to be given in enough time to cover living expenses. For the SWC, however, equity trumps equality, and Columbia must make sure that all student workers—especially low-income student workers—are not subjected to financial instability caused by a lack of funds. And for students who needed the extra $8,000 no longer offered via the new stipend distribution schedule to cover living expenses, equal treatment of the workers is not exactly attending to their needs.
Tensions Between The SWC Bargaining Committee And Dan Driscoll
The change in stipend policy for student workers served as the catalyst for a much more drawn-out argument between the administration (specifically Driscoll) and the Student Workers of Columbia, beginning via email and culminating in front of Driscoll’s door.
After the SWC reached out to Driscoll with their concern about the last-minute stipend change that occurred without consultation and a month before the first payment, Driscoll offered the Bargaining Committee a chance to meet on August 12 at 2 pm to answer any questions about the new policy. The Bargaining Committee, following their new bylaws that state that all meetings between the Bargaining Committee (BC), the UAW, and the University must be open to all members of the unit, accepted Driscoll’s offer to meet for a summer bargaining session on August 12 at 2 pm to discuss compensation on the condition that it be open to all.
Several days later, Driscoll, maintaining his position that the stipend change was not a mandatory topic for bargaining and thus does not need to be retracted, asked the Bargaining Committee to provide the names and emails of “those that will participate in this meeting”—implying that the August 12 Zoom conference would be closed and that the “information session” would not involve any bargaining. After the Bargaining Committee responded the next morning asking for an open meeting, Driscoll straightforwardly refused to hold an open bargaining session, writing that “We do not believe that discussion or bargaining before an unlimited number of observers is productive or efficient.” He further clarified that aside from the ten Bargaining Committee members, at most five other unit members could attend this “information session.” The administration has previously shown skepticism at the Union’s desire for open bargaining sessions, with Interim Provost Ira Katznelson deeming the open Zoom conferences “counter-productive” during the negotiations of Spring 2021.
About an hour later, the Bargaining Committee addressed Driscoll’s contradictions on whether or not the August 12 meeting would be an information session or an actual bargaining session, seeing that Driscoll had both asked for an “information session” (implying no action taken) and for the Bargaining Committee to act on behalf of the whole unit—all in the same email. The Bargaining Committee clarified that, by their framework, all bargaining sessions must be open meetings, and if Driscoll wanted to bargain, he must allow all members of the SWC to attend. However, if the August 12 meeting was going to be an information session, then it would still make more sense in the SWC’s eyes to allow everyone to attend. “Either way,” the Bargaining Committee wrote, “we do not believe that a closed meeting, whether to receive information or negotiate over the decision, would be productive or efficient.”
In Driscoll’s August 11 email sent to the Bargaining Committee, he restated that the stipend change policy was not a mandatory bargaining issue according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that he was still willing to meet with the Committee in a restricted setting. Then, after the Bargaining Committee denounced Driscoll’s refusal to discuss the new stipend policy and to respect SWC bylaws and hold an open bargaining session, Driscoll responded on August 12, “As I’m sure you understand, neither the unit’s referendum nor open bargaining principles are binding on the University.” In other words, the University does not have to abide by the rules set by the SWC, so if they do not want to hold open bargaining sessions, they do not have to. The Bargaining Committee expressed their frustration to Bwog at the impasse this leads to. The choice to have open or closed bargaining sessions, as one Bargaining Committee member put it, “is out of our hands—we must have open bargaining because our unit requires it.” If the University refuses, then, no progress toward a contract can be made.
There were no more email exchanges between the two parties after Driscoll’s August 12 email, and the Zoom meeting on August 12 did not occur. However, this was not the end of disputing for either the Student Workers of Columbia or Vice President Driscoll. Less than an hour after Driscoll sent his final email on August 12, members of the SWC arrived at his campus office to deliver a printed copy of their petition demanding to withdraw the stipend change policy, which had more than 1,100 signatures at the time. A link to an unlisted YouTube video, which recorded the whole event, was sent to Bwog last week. A short summary of the SWC’s in-person encounter with Driscoll can be read below.
The video begins with a few unit members gathered outside Studebaker Building, ready to march into Driscoll’s office. As soon as they approached the door to the office center, they were met by a staff member, telling the unit that they are not allowed to meet with Driscoll in person and, “if you want to meet with him, schedule an appointment. That’s how it’s done.” “This is a delivery,” one unit member replied, and the group of student workers walked past the staff member and into the office. The staff member followed them inside, attempting to stop their visit by shouting, “You’re not even supposed to be in here! You were not invited; you do not have an appointment.” Ignoring the comments, the group continued walking, searching for Driscoll’s office.
The camera then pans to the staff member, who is seen on the phone talking to someone while the group waits for Driscoll. Seconds later, the staff member walks out of the office, and the group of student workers walks to another door at the end of the hallway. A person in the office then asks a question (the person is not in the video, nor is the question audible), and one member replies, “They [the University] break all the rules ma’am; they broke all of them for years. But our beef is not with you.”
The scene quickly escalates after another unit member knocks on Driscoll’s door, and he appears in the doorway. Before the group hands him their petition, he directs them all to leave the office and to schedule an appointment under his terms if they want to have a meeting. He then shuts the door on them until another staff member shares that security was called. The group begins to ask Driscoll to look at the petition that demands a withdrawal of the stipend change policy. Driscoll takes the paper and repeats to the unit members that they could have waited and scheduled an online appointment to deliver the petition to him.
A loud argument between Union members and Driscoll breaks out, as the group presses the Vice President for refusing to meet with them over the summer and respect SWC bylaws that call for opening bargaining sessions. At the end of the video, Driscoll shuts the door on the student workers, and they walk out before security arrives.
When asked to reflect on their encounter with Driscoll at his office, one member of the Bargaining Committee commented, “In essence, our march on Dan Driscoll was a protest of their insistence on closed bargaining.” The march into Driscoll’s office was, in their eyes, a demonstration of the unit’s swift coordination. “We got the email from Dan where he essentially threatens to close all bargaining meetings to the unit at 12:55 and had a plan to go to his office in person by 1:30,” one member wrote. “We are hoping that the way things are run now helps us coordinate direct action like this throughout the semester.”
Looking Ahead To The Fall Semester
This past summer, the Student Workers of Columbia had reorganized their structure and framework, creating a tighter unit focused on working together to pass a contract that best serves the interests of the student workers. At the same time, no headway was made with negotiations between the SWC and the University, and tensions flared over the University’s desire for closed negotiations and the SWC’s mandated open bargaining, culminating in the in-person dispute between the parties in front of Driscoll’s office—all before any actual bargaining has begun. Now the question remains: What happens next?
On August 25, the SWC will meet with the University to discuss how the two parties will bargain in the upcoming semester. According to their statement to Bwog, the members of the Bargaining Committee stated that the bargaining session, compliant with the new SWC bylaws, will be an open meeting, so all Union members will be encouraged to attend.
However, if the University continues to demand closed meetings in conflict with the requirements of the unit, things could escalate even quicker than they already had, potentially affecting everyone on campus—student workers, professors, the administration, and undergraduate students alike.
According to one member of the Bargaining Committee, “We are organizing a Strike Authorization Vote to occur in the fall—so these unilateral changes that the university is making to hurt its student workers are only serving to rile them up.” This does not mean that the SWC will immediately go on strike if the vote passes. However, if this fall’s voter turnout is anything compared to the March 2020 Authorization Vote (for which 97% voted “yes”) that permitted the Spring 2021 strike, another one could be on the horizon. And because the University will be returning to fully in-person classes this upcoming semester, the scale and immediate effects of a possible strike could be much larger.
This future, of course, depends on the actions of the University as much as this new SWC. In Spring 2021, the University did not agree to the demands from the GWC-UAW before and after negotiations, which, alongside internal tensions between the Bargaining Committee and larger rank and file, led to the rejection of the tentative contract and reorganization of the GWC-UAW into the SWC. Now, if the University refuses to discuss the stipend change and holding open bargaining sessions, the SWC will certainly take action. “I’d say the chances of the University avoiding a strike this fall are slim to none if they refuse to give in to our core demands—the same demands that fueled the No-Vote this past Spring,” a Bargaining Committee member wrote in their statement to Bwog. “Our unit is demanding more, and we will fight to get it.”
Bwog will update this article as necessary, and important updates on the SWC will be covered in future articles.
Header via Victoria Borlando
SWC Reporting by Deputy Editor Lillian Rountree and News Editor Victoria Borlando