Today at 9 am, members of the Student Workers of Columbia began voting on whether their Bargaining Committee should have the authority to call for a strike if they deem it necessary to further negotiations for a still non-existent contract with the University.

After organizing the largest strike in Columbia’s history last spring, the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC, previously the GWC-UAW), are preparing for a strike authorization vote. If the majority of members of the SWC vote “yes” for a call to strike—as they overwhelmingly did in 2020—the Union’s Bargaining Committee will gain the power to call for a strike at any point in time if they deem it necessary leverage to further push negotiations with the University. The voting period will start on September 15 at 9 am and end on September 27 at 5 pm.

Over the summer, the SWC reorganized into a tighter unit set on passing a contract that best meets their vision to fairly serve the interests of student workers. A website redesign, name change, and the development of their first set of union bylaws all emphasize the union’s shift towards a focus on unit unity and the involvement of all student workers across all levels of union organization and negotiation. Though no bargaining took place over the summer, due to the summer break, tensions flared over the University’s change in how it would distribute stipends to graduate students and its demands for closed bargaining, leading to a drawn-out argument between the SWC and the University and protest actions by the SWC. 

Bargaining was set to resume on August 25. For this meeting, however, Columbia blocked the rank and file’s entrance into the meeting, requesting that only members of the Bargaining Committee and at most five other unit members be present for the negotiation. Because the Union’s new bylaws require that bargaining sessions be open to all members of the union, not just the Bargaining Committee, the Union refused to attend, creating an impasse in negotiations, as the Union’s bylaws are only binding for the SWC, not for the University. On its part, the University has so far refused to hold open bargaining sessions since the new bylaws have been established, with Driscoll writing to the union that, “We do not believe that discussion or bargaining before an unlimited number of observers is productive or efficient.” The SWC has cited this apparent deadlock as a primary reason for their call for a strike authorization vote.

On top of the strike authorization vote, according to a press release from the SWC sent this morning, the SWC has taken legal action against the University. Namely, after the University’s refusal to comply with the SWC bylaws that demand open bargaining sessions, the SWC has filed for unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), claiming that Columbia’s actions over the summer were “illegal retaliatory tactics.” And, if the trend to push for closed meetings continues, as the SWC alleges, “it could be grounds for a labor law violation.” This would not be the first time the NLRB has been called to weigh in on decisions between the University and the Union: the case affirming graduate students’ right to unionize as employees under the National Labor Relations Act was one between Columbia and the then-Graduate Workers of Columbia.

The Union’s demands from the Spring still stand, with their core demands being access to expanded healthcare programs, establishment of a union shop, higher yearly and hourly stipends, and access to third-party arbitration for cases of workplace harassment. In addition to these demands, the unit is sending Columbia a list of demands related to the reopening plan, including demands concerning mask mandates, testing frequency, quarantine requirements, continued payments for workers unable to attend in person, the ability to work and attend classes remotely, and class sizes. As Harvard University’s student workers begin a strike authorization vote of their own, the scene is being set for a disruptive fall, not just at Columbia—but across the Ivy League.

Image via Shira Michaeli