Columbia University Student Workers Triumph in Campaign for First Union Contract

After more than two months, it was the late hours on January 6. on strike, the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW) reached a tentative agreement for their union’s first contract with Columbia University.

Contract wins result in significant increases for workers. They bring annual compensation for those who are on 9-month contracts to just over $40,000 and raise the minimum wage for hourly workers to $15 to $21. SWC members also won dental and childcare stipends, as well as an emergency healthcare fund for all union members. They were also given full recognition as student workers within the bargaining unit. There are also provisions for neutral arbitration in cases of harassment or bullying. The full details of the agreement are still to be revealed to the public.

Although the strike lasted for ten weeks, this agreement is the culmination. almost ten years of organizing.

SWC’s Path to a Contract

Columbia student workers first organized in 2013. At that time, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) did not recognize graduate workers at private universities’ right to unionize, although it had done so for a brief period between 2000 and 2004. The three-year-old fight to change this policy was the work of the founding members of SWC, now known as Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC).

GWC was granted union recognition by the NLRB in 2016. This decision opened the door for student workers at all other private universities in the United States. Columbia refused to negotiate, which led to the union’s first strike2018 Columbia only agreed to negotiate after the UAW bureaucrats. sold out the student workersBy negotiating a backroom deal on a bargaining structure that would prevent the union from striking again for 17 more months. Unsurprisingly, with the union’s most powerful tool taken away, Columbia continued to stall.

A unique aspect of graduate worker organizing, is that almost all employees are on a fixed-term contract with limited renewal possibilities. This is unlike other types of workplaces. One purpose of Columbia’s stalling was to wait-out the most dedicated and knowledgeable organizers.

But it didn’t work. The union was disbanded after the no-strike pledge expired March 2021. went on strike again almost immediately. The strike led to a tentative agreement that was endorsed by 7 of the 10 bargaining committee members. sold out nearly all of the union’s demands. This agreement was met with widespread criticism by the rank and file, and union members organizing under Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union(C-AWDU), including three bargaining committee members who voted in opposition to the agreement, led a successful Vote No Campaign. Columbia’s Student Workers became the first graduate student union ever to be founded. reject a proposed contract.

After the agreement was rejected, the entire bargaining panel resigned and elections were called for a new one. Anyone who wanted to help draft new bylaws for the union was invited to open meetings by organizers. In July 2021, the new bylaws and committee were ratified.

Contrary to their predecessors the new bargaining commission agreed on a framework open bargainingThis means that all strategy meetings, drafting session for proposals, bargaining sessions, and all other sessions were open to all union member and in some cases the public. Open bargaining is not just important for workers’ democracy; it holds all parties to a high level of accountability to the rank and file.

The proof is in the pudding: The new tentative agreement reached through open negotiations and a more militant strike is stronger than the one that was rejected in April. The minimum wage for hourly workers in this agreement will be $21. It was $17 under the previous agreement. But make no mistake— this agreement was hard-won.

SWC vs. Columbia

Before the 2021-2022 school year began, Columbia University announced “changes to the pay dispersal schedule” for student workers’ pay. Typically, students “on appointment” (that is, non-hourly workers) receive some of their pay as a lump sum at the beginning of the semester and some on a biweekly basis. The lump sum, known as “stipend” pay, is considered student support, not pay for one’s labor. The new rules stipulate that students will only receive a portion of their stipend at semester’s beginning. This was an intentional move to undermine the workers’ power by keeping the money — and therefore the power — in Columbia’s hands for as long as possible. In response to this and Columbia’s attempt to ban open bargaining, the union held a strike authorization vote and set a strike deadline for November 3.

From the very beginning of the strike, hundreds of undergraduates were ready to fight alongside the student workers, including shutting down one session of President Lee Bollinger’s course on “Freedom of Speech and Press.” Undergraduates also organized fundraisersThey used their meal plans to sneak food out of the cafeteria to give to the striking workers — until the university got wise and tightened cafeteria security.

However, the tides changed in December when the university closed its doors. threatened to permanently replaceAll student workers who failed or were unable to return to work by December 10, This happened on a Thursday. Many faculty members marched out at noon the next Monday to join the picket lines and hold a rally of solidarity. Two days later, the center of campus was deserted as faculty canceled and students skipped classes in solidarity and unions from across New York City — including the Teamsters, the NY News Guild, the Amazon Labor Union, and academic workers from CUNY, NYU, and The New School — helped SWC shut down at least six entrances to campus.

Columbia tried to paint the picketers as violent, but many students, faculty, journalists, politicians, and other participants attested that this was a flat-faced lie. Mike Pappas said, “Calling the cops on your students and denying them healthcare or a living wage is a lie.” is the real violence. When department chairs started to circulate calls for scabs among their staff, three unions and nearly 800 members of the New York academic community joined forces. signed a pledgeRefusing to replace striking workers. The faculty of Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department announced they would refuse to comply with the university’s order to replace their graduate students with scabs.

Students Workers Win

Final exams coincided with New York City’s Omicron variant. Therefore, the picket lines have been completely online for the past few week. Columbia administrators failed, despite their best efforts to end the strike before final grade due, giving the union more power. This tentative agreement is the product of ten weeks worth of solidarity and organizing. This tentative agreement is the result workers refusing to compromise on the most important issues like full recognition. This tentative agreement is the product of solidarity between the union and the students, faculty, as well as other NYC labor unions.

This struggle should be taken as an example to other higher education workers, unions across all sectors, and as a way to inspire others.
Academic workers at other universities can and should learn from and build upon SWC’s example. What would have been the outcome if faculty were more involved from the beginning? What would have been the outcome if Columbia’s other unions had joined the strike effort? What would have happened if the union was able to block? Alla complete shut down of the school and all entrances to campus. These questions and many others can be answered in the years ahead.