With collective bargaining, we would democratically determine priorities, elect a bargaining committee who negotiates as equals for improvements, vote democratically on approving them, and put any agreements into a legally binding contract that Columbia could not subsequently change without our consent. Not surprisingly, the Columbia administration wants us to vote no because without a union, they can decide unilaterally what our benefits and other conditions are. If you want a more democratic system where we participate in the decisions that affect our daily lives and our ability to carry out quality research and teaching, then you should vote YES!
NLRB AND ELECTION QUESTIONS
The unit is: “All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders); All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and All Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis facilities.”
The NLRB decision reversed a George W. Bush-era case involving Brown University that took away the right to collective bargaining for RAs and TAs at private universities. Prior to the Brown decision, TAs and RAs at New York University voted to unionize with the UAW and negotiated major improvements – including a 38 percent increase to minimum stipends and paid health insurance – in the first-ever union contract for graduate employees at a private university. Our victory at the NLRB in 2016 not only ensures our right to choose unionization in a democratic election at Columbia, but grants thousands of RAs and TAs at other private universities the right to organize if they so choose.
Graduate employee unions in our public universities are common; more than 60 campuses nationwide already have recognized unions and engage in collective bargaining. This includes New York University, SUNY, CUNY, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, Rutgers University, the University of California, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan, as well as many others. Graduate employees at Harvard, Boston College, Yale, Cornell and the University of Chicago are currently in the process of organizing unions.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
- Morningside Heights Campus: 10am – 8pm, Earl Hall
- Columbia University Medical Center: 10am – 8pm, Hammer Health Sciences Building Lower Level 1 Room 104
- Lamont-Doherty earth Observatory: 10am – 3pm, Sutton House
Thursday, December 8, 2016
- Morningside Heights Campus: 10am – 8pm, Earl Hall
- Columbia University Medical Center: 10am – 8pm, Hammer Health Sciences Building Lower Level 1 Room 104
- Nevis Laboratory, Irvington, NY: 10am – 12pm, conference room at 136 South Broadway
Eligible to vote will be all unit employees who: (1) hold an appointment [RA or TA] or a training grant in a unit position in the fall semester 2016 or (2) are course assistants, graders or readers who are on the casual payroll and who worked 15 hours per week or more in a unit position in the fall semester 2016; or (3) have held a unit position for either the fall, spring or summer during the prior academic year.
Throughout deliberations with the NLRB, Columbia has sought to limit eligibility to vote. The University took the position that only students actually working this semester would be allowed to vote. This formula was established by the NLRB in response to the Union’s efforts to expand the franchise to as many student employees as possible within the limits of the law.
Again, we encourage all who are eligible to participate in this historic vote. If you have any questions, please do contact us and we will be happy to help you with any questions about the union or voter eligibility issues.
As far as “stipend becoming a wage” more generally, again, the NLRB determination has no bearing. As an example, NRSA Training Grant recipients are represented by the Union at the University of Washington. Their training grant stipend, per NIH rules, is still distributed as a “stipend” (meaning no tax withholdings –FICA OR income tax—at the time of payment by the University, per NIH guidelines) The upside of the Union and the contract at UW is that, despite the University’s efforts to deny coverage in a number of cases, Trainees now clearly qualify for workers compensation if they are injured at work—you can read about it on their Union website (scroll down to the section entitled “Health & Safety and Workers Compensation).
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF COLLECTIVE BARGAINING
Without collective bargaining, Columbia has unilateral power to change our conditions or decide whether or not to make improvements. For example, Columbia currently decides unilaterally whether or not to make sure we get paid on time or whether our stipends keep up with the cost of university housing.
- elect a bargaining committee from among Columbia RAs and TAs;
- based on existing and further surveys, the committee will develop initial bargaining proposals; before bargaining commences, we, the RAs and TAs, will vote to ratify these goals;
- the committee will meet with university representatives to negotiate in pursuit of our bargaining goals;
- when our committee has negotiated a tentative agreement with the University they feel they can recommend, RAs and TAs will vote whether to ratify it as our first contract;
- The bargaining committee will be aided throughout by experienced negotiators from the local union and our regional UAW representatives;
- after the contract is ratified, the membership will elect representatives who help run the Union and help members with any problems they have in the workplace
The process allows us to decide democratically what issues to prioritize in these negotiations. As such, what RAs and TAs have won through collective bargaining at other universities varies, but in general, gains have been made in minimum stipends, health benefits, workload protections, and family benefits. At NYU, for example, under their first contract in 2002, they won:
- 38% increase in minimum stipends (which also led Columbia to increase stipends at the time), and a 15% increase for the small number already making more than the minimum;
- Elimination of health insurance premium sharing (a savings of $1000 annually);f
- guaranteed tuition/fee waivers for all graduate employees covered by the contract;
- a fair grievance procedure;
- protection against having RA/TA appointments withdrawn at the last minute;
- workload protections;
- increased child care subsidies; and
- $100 per day for required pre-semester training or orientation.
- guaranteed annual minimum increases on total compensation, which protects and insures increases in stipends and other pay. During the current academic year, funded PhD TAs who teach both semesters will receive at least $37,783;
- implementation of a family healthcare fund to provide up to 75% of premium subsidies;
- implementation of a childcare fund, which provided a benefit to bargaining unit members of $2,140 per child in the first year of the contract;
- an improved dental benefit amounting to a savings of $240 per year to each graduate employee covered by the contract; and
- reinstatement of most of the protections negotiated in the 2002 contract.
Despite the legal setback, however, graduate workers continued to organize. As a result of sustained majority support and organizing, graduate workers at NYU scored a major breakthrough in late 2013, when GSOC-UAW won an unprecedented, voluntary neutrality and election agreement with the administration. NYU RAs and TAs subsequently voted overwhelmingly – by a 98.4% margin – for unionization. Soon after the NYU vote, graduate workers at Columbia formed an organizing committee and began reaching out to their coworkers, both one-on-one and through a series of town hall events. By fall 2014, a majority of RAs and TAs at Columbia signed up for GWC-UAW and the union filed a petition at the NLRB in December of that year. Columbia refused to follow NYU's lead. Instead of agreeing to a voluntary recognition process and neutrality, the university hired an expensive outside law firm to contest our right to collective bargaining. After lengthy hearings and several rounds of legal arguments, GWC-UAW won the historic August 23, 2016, decision by the NLRB restoring the right to collective bargaining for RAs and TAs at private universities. The decision means a likely election on unionization in fall 2016.
Read a more detailed history of grad worker organizing at Columbia here.
The NLRB said the following on this topic in its ruling, “More recent survey-based research found 'no support' for the contentions that graduate student unionization ‘would harm the faculty-student relationship’ or ‘would diminish academic freedom,’ …the best analytical evidence offered by Columbia suggests merely that neither harm nor benefit from collective bargaining can be ruled out, the dire predictions of the Brown University Board are undercut.”
For more analysis, you can read an interesting critique of Provost Coatsworth’s anti-union rhetoric by the Vice President of the American Association of University Professors and the GWC-UAW analysis of Provost Coatsworth’s FAQ.
If anything, the university’s effort to enlist the support of faculty in their anti-union campaign is more likely to create a negative environment on campus, as most faculty understand that we should be able to make a free decision on the question of unionization.
Instead, because collective bargaining is a democratic, nuanced and participatory process, the unions at UW and UConn have negotiated provisions that empower individuals – say, a TA who is being required to work so many hours that it detracts from their dissertation – to choose to address a workload problem, while simultaneously allowing those of us, like RAs doing paid “work” that helps our dissertation, the freedom to choose to spend as many hours in the lab as desired.
Put another way, the provisions of a contract would be negotiated between the university and the union. The university has no incentive to propose an hours-capping provision, since it benefits from the research labs produce. The union would have no reason to add such a provision, unless its member RAs made clear they wanted one, through bargaining surveys and other democratic channels. That seems unlikely – to put it mildly. Thus, it is hard to imagine anybody at the table making such a proposal, and even harder to imagine grad workers voting to ratify a contract that included it.
At the University of Washington, probably the most similar to us since it has a large medical school with hundreds of RAs, a variable pay system existed before the contract and continues under the contract. Under that system, there are minimum pay rates that all departments must follow, but departments are free to pay higher rates. Graduate workers at UW democratically chose to preserve that system, and, while those at the lower pay rates have experienced larger increases, everyone’s pay has gone up after unionization.
In another example, under the first contract at NYU, the minimum stipends for the poorest-paid workers went up 38% over 4 years, while the small number of people above the minimum got at least a 15% raise over 4 years. Again, no one took a pay cut. In the second contract at NYU, the lowest paid workers at NYU Poly received signing bonuses of up to $1,500 and will see their hourly wage double (from $10 to $20 per hour) over the life of the contract, while the highest paid PhD workers received signing bonuses of up to $750 and will see their total compensation increase by roughly 13 percent.
A slightly different example is UConn, where graduate assistants had the same pay rates before unionization and the contract raised all those by 3% per year (in addition to significant increases in fee waivers that are worth an additional 3.2-7.6 percent wage increase, depending on FTE and academic standing). The contract also ensures additional step increases based on academic progress.
In all cases, these guaranteed gains were larger than the small percentage in membership dues, which is why these contracts were overwhelmingly ratified.
Feel free to read summaries of the before and after effects of collective bargaining at these and various other universities on the GWC-UAW website.
At Columbia, we will decide what to bargain for and we will determine our own fates collectively with the ratification of our contract. In hundreds of conversations across campus over the last two years, no one has said the Union should propose leveling pay or that anyone should take a pay cut, so we can rest assured pay leveling will not be a union proposal.
For an example of how the unions at UW and UConn addressed an issue that might affect RAs and TAs differently, see the response to the question on workload, above. Another example of an issue that might matter more to RAs than, say, TAs, is vacation. At UW, for example, TAs tend to get time off during academic break periods by default, but it was a huge priority for many RAs—while many had PIs who would allow time off, many had PIs who would not and it was totally arbitrary. The contract now guarantees all RAs the right to at least four weeks of paid time off with no work expectations per year. Other examples would be holidays, health and safety,parking and transit, and travel. On parking, this was important to RAs who want the ability to drive in to do a short procedure late at night in order to keep an experiment going. RAs at UConn who had the same parking issue really benefited from the union contract, which cut parking prices in half for Graduate Assistants, both for the reasons at UW and because public transit is very limited there.
As an example of how this plays out, in the first contract for postdocs at the University of California, the union negotiated significant pay increases, and the union and the university agreed to a phase-in process so that PIs would have the ability to accommodate the improvements without disrupting current research. Before collective bargaining, the University decided such things unilaterally, and some postdocs made as little as $18,000 per year even though UC had a “policy” stipulating that the minimum postdoc salary should have been $37,000.
Empirically, the overall number of RAs (and TAs) has grown at the University of Washington since unionization in 2004, as has the number of postdocs at the University of California since unionization in 2008. Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.
If there were a dispute, or an alleged violation of the contract, an individual RA would have the option of involving the union or not. If you talk to people at the University of Washington, for example, you’ll hear that they don’t need to file with their union in order to request vacation time under the contract or to ask to leave early one day for a family commitment. They talk directly to their PIs and advisers just like we do at Columbia. The difference is, if there is a problem, they have the option of involving a union representative to help resolve it. Normally, that effort to resolve the problem is done informally.
The language at the University of Washington is instructive. Article 8 of their contract says “The parties support the resolution of problems at the lowest possible level and to that end encourage informal discussions to resolve problems without the grievance procedure. Prior to initiating a grievance, the aggrieved party is encouraged to discuss the matter with the immediate supervisor. If requested, a Union representative may be involved in the discussion. Resolutions from pre-grievance discussions, although final, shall not be precedential.” And if it is not resolved informally, it can be put into writing and, ultimately, taken to a neutral arbitrator to decide whether the University violated the contract. But the decision to take these steps is in the hands of the individual RA.
The contract can always be “re-opened” or renegotiated if both parties (the Union and the Administration) are in agreement to do so. Additionally, if new programs or new positions are created that weren’t contemplated by the contract, the Administration has a legal obligation to bargain the terms of employment for the new workers with the Union.
Furthermore, if this is a concern going into bargaining and a priority, we can negotiate for the ability to bargain during the life of the contract for things that are not addressed in the contract.
We also asked other grad employee unions (University of Washington and University of Massachusetts), and they have told us that this has never been a problem.
In fact, the GWC-UAW international students working group has been very active over the last two years and accomplished a lot as part of our union campaign.
For example, GSOC at NYU just won an arbitration case involving NYU’s wrongful denial of tuition remission benefits to workers in the School of Education and the School of Social Work. Affected graduate workers will receive a refund of approximately $1500/semester for each semester they were affected.
For more examples of how a fair and effective grievance procedure can work, you can check out highlights of how graduate employees at the University of Washington have successfully enforced their rights under the Union contract on issues ranging from pregnancy discrimination and tuition/fee waivers to payment and health and safety issues.
It is not uncommon to take a strike vote and to prepare to strike in order to make a breakthrough in contract negotiations when the administration takes a hard line. This is precisely what happened at NYU in 2015 when the contract was settled hours before a strike was set to begin.
Second, there are alternatives to striking as a way to achieve bargaining objectives. For example, at the University of Connecticut, where state law prohibits striking in the public sector, graduate assistants organized and started a two-day sit-in toward the end of contract negotiations in 2015. On the evening of the first day of the sit-in reached a tentative agreement for a great first contract.
As for science RAs and strikes, at the University of Washington RAs have fortunately not had to strike since formation of the union in 2004, but have started preparations for a strike several times in order to achieve a fair contract. In the process of preparing for a possible strike, RAs engaged in a process to figure out how to participate in a strike without damaging their own academic progress. If we were to contemplate – together, democratically – a strike here at Columbia, we would obviously have to sort through that set of issues as well.
We have also done work to educate faculty about shared interests we have, such as federal research funding. Some number of faculty, as well as numerous academic professional societies, signed our petition to increase STEM research funding. We are also proud that the UAW appears to be the only national union with an official position in support of increasing federal research funding.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UAW AND MEMBERSHIP DUES
Dues provide the financial resources necessary to have a strong union, including paying for legal costs, staffing, supplies, equipment, etc.
Most graduate worker unions have such a provision in the contract because it means we have more power and more resources available to fight for the best possible contracts with the administration.
- Technical support for contract negotiations:
- Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price
- Researchers who can help analyze University finances. Legal advice where necessary
- Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals in bargaining, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall contract campaign
- Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the organizing staff and legal support for the GWC-UAW campaign is paid for by existing UAW members’ dues money)
- Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE OF THE UAW
By way of example, the bargaining committee at UConn had six members, who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education. At the University of California, they had two committee members per campus.
Second, RAs and TAs will get to vote democratically to approve not only the initial bargaining goals prior to negotiations but also the final contract negotiated by the committee, which encourages democratic accountability. In the recent University of California postdoc contract campaign, the most recent UAW academic example, a majority of all 6,200 postdocs voted in favor of the bargaining committee’s initial demands, which were based on extensive surveys, and voted to accept the final contract.
In electing our bargaining committee, we plan to follow the example of other graduate unions in the UAW that have tended to balance a need for a committee that is manageable in size and still representative of discipline, job title, etc. At NYU and UConn, several meetings were held soon after official union recognition to work out the size of the bargaining committee. At UConn, they ended up electing six committee members who came from Engineering, Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, all the major disciplines on campus. The contract they negotiated increased stipends; resulted in a new, and significantly improved, healthcare program; improved workload protections; reduced fees; included protections from discrimination; and, included provisions for job security. When the final agreement was put to a vote, graduate assistants voted 99% in favor, with a majority of all those eligible voting yes.
We will do the same—soon after the election, we will hold meetings to determine the size and composition of the committee. While we have examples from other universities, we will have to figure out what will work best at Columbia.
The UAW definition of democracy also encompasses a commitment, in Article 2 of the Constitution, to further “the improvement of general economic and social conditions in the United States of America, Canada, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and generally in the nations of the world.”
The UAW is unique in the US labor movement in that it allows appeals like the one from the member in California to go to the independent PRB, so that a neutral party decides whether the UAW has followed its own democratic procedures.
February 29, 2004
“I am a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the President of UAW Local 2322, the union that represents graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Our union was recognized in 1991 and has bargained six contracts since that time. We have been able to negotiate dramatic improvements for our members on wages, healthcare, childcare, and other issues.
As you move closer to your election you may hear negative things about the UAW at UMass.
There were problems in the local in the past. People in the local couldn’t resolve their disputes, and some democratic practices were not being followed. But the UAW, the larger organization that we are part of, didn’t let that situation disintegrate. At the request of members of our local, a UAW staff member assisted us in getting things back on track by allowing our democratically elected leadership to take charge. At the time I was skeptical of the role that the UAW staff might play, but I have to say that it was the best thing for the local. The future of Local 2322 is bright. We have had a number of great accomplishments recently – a new contract and organizing victories for more campus workers. I want to encourage you to vote yes in your election and look forward to welcoming you into the UAW.”
James A.W. Shaw
President Local 2322 United Auto Workers
February 28, 2004
“We are the current elected UC Santa Barbara leadership of UAW Local 2865. We urge the ASEs at University of Washington to vote yes for GSEAC/UAW in your upcoming election. We are proud to be members of the UAW.
Like most democratic organizations, we have had some internal disagreements. In the late 1990’s a small group at our campus disagreed over bargaining goals and strategies. The group, including some of the elected bargaining team members, wanted to have the right to strike over grievances, in addition to the remedy of binding arbitration, in the contract. This was not a position supported by the Santa Barbara membership in bargaining surveys or organizing contacts, nor by the rest of the elected bargaining teams and members at UC’s seven other campuses. The Santa Barbara bargaining team members resigned over this disagreement. The contract was subsequently ratified by all UC campuses, including Santa Barbara. Since then, we and elected leadership at the other seven UC campuses have negotiated a second contract, also ratified by members at all campuses.”
Brian Campbell, UCSB Campus Unit Chair, UAW Local 2865, Geological Sciences
Nina Kilham, UCSB Campus Recording Secretary, UAW Local 2865, Geography
Susie Keller, UCSB Campus Head Steward, UAW Local 2865, English
QUESTIONS FOR UNDERGRADUATES
There has been no research showing that student unions raise the price of tuition. At institutions such as the University of Washington and the University of California, graduate worker unions have been instrumental in helping to campaign against tuition increases.