Starting today, members of the Columbia community will be voting on whether teaching assistants and researchers should unionize. Not sure which side to vote for? Our team has been in communication with both the Graduate Workers of Columbia group and the Columbia University administration to offer perspectives from both sides of the argument.
In a document sent to The Lion, the Graduate Workers of Columbia laid out the views of the Provost with their perspective on why Unionization would be best.
“Keep Informed on the Unionization Debate”
|What the Provost says||What the Provost leaves out|
|Uninhibited and energetic debate must be based on facts. Here is pertinent information relevant to issues raised subsequent to the NLRB’s August decision on the status of teaching and research assistants.||RAs and TAs across Columbia agree. We are disappointed, however, that Provost Coatsworth has so far declined GWC-UAW’s invitation to a town-hall style debate on unionization, even though the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate (the body he holds up as evidence of why we do not need a union) voted to serve as moderator. We continue to hope he accepts.
|Stipend increases are not new. For the past decade, doctoral stipends have been increasing regularly. The reason? The University and its schools are competing for and committed to attracting the very best students in the world. It is not accurate to claim that the recent union organizing drive prompted these increases. Over the last ten years, the stipends paid by all schools at Columbia have increased, on average, more than 3% annually, and stipends at schools on the Morningside campus will continue to increase at a minimum of 3% annually for the next three academic years. Stipends in the four Medical Center schools will continue to increase at rates determined by each school based on rates set by the NIH guidelines. On September 1, 2016, stipends rose by 3.75% or more at each of Columbia’s Arts & Sciences departments and all of the professional schools located on Morningside. By contrast, NYU’s union contract provides for annual increases of no more than 2.5%.||It is true that pay increases may not be new, but it is also true that the pace at which they have occurred has varied over the years and has tended to be more dramatic during times when graduate workers have been actively organizing and/or negotiating union contracts. According to the University’s own figures provided to the Graduate Student Advisory Council, for example, average annual stipend increases have roughly doubled since RAs and TAs started forming GWC-UAW in early 2014. From 2009-10 through 2013-14, the standard GSAS stipend increased, on average, 1.8% per year, whereas from 2014 to 2016-17 annual increases have averaged over 4%.
Similarly, in the early 2000’s, when NYU graduate workers negotiated a 38% base stipend increase in their first contract in 2001, Columbia and many peer institutions immediately raised stipends by 15% in just one year, bringing them into line with NYU’s new levels and setting our compensation packages on their current trajectory.
NYU’s experience also illustrates the long term effects of unionizing. As a result of 18 years of organizing and bargaining, NYU PhD students earn extra pay when they teach that ranges from $5,376 to more than $10,000 per semester, meaning that individuals can earn anywhere from $38,000 (humanities/social sciences) to more than $45,000 (sciences) during years when they teach.
|Students participating in the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) have never lacked dental coverage. A supplemental plan for students not participating in SHIP was canceled by Aetna (not the University) because the insurance company decided enrollment was too low to continue with the plan. Columbia had advance notice and made available an alternative, supplemental plan for students affected by Aetna’s termination. Students never faced a gap in dental coverage.||If Columbia provided paid dental insurance for all student assistants, like at NYU, UMass, and UW (University of Washington), Aetna would not have cancelled the dental plan because “enrollment was too low.” At the rate Aetna charged last year ($320), Columbia could have provided dental insurance to all 3,000 RAs and TAs for $960,000, which is in all likelihood less than they paid outside lawyers to oppose our right to a union.
Equally important, the current dental benefit offered to students offers vastly less coverage than the Dental Maintenance Organization-style plan previously available through Aetna. The difference can mean thousands of dollars in increased expenses for graduate workers with substantial dental needs. Because we had no real say in the decision not to replace our canceled coverage with something comparable, the needs of such students were ignored.
|Graduate students already have eye care and vision coverage through SHIP. Discounts for vision and eye care have existed for many years.||Unspecified percentage discounts on eye exams and glasses are a far cry from a true eye care and vision plan.
|Columbia helped solve—and did not create—the IRS problem experienced by international graduate students earlier this year. The IRS acknowledged its responsibility for a mistake regarding 2014 filings that prevented international students from receiving expected tax refunds. The IRS error affected many universities and their international graduate students. The problem was not caused by Columbia or any of the other school affected. When Columbia became aware of the problem, the University extended no-interest loans to students in need and urged our representatives in Congress to remedy the problem.||The Columbia administration may not be ultimately responsible for the tax issues that international students faced last year, but it is absolutely responsible for how it responded. Columbia’s initial response to concerned international students facing massive, imminent tax bills from the IRS ranged from nonchalant to dismissive, offering to address the issue on a case-by-case basis upon being contacted by affected students directly instead of working on a comprehensive solution.
Intervention by the GWC International Students Working Group – one of the most active contingents of our union – ultimately led more than 1,000 RAs and TAs to sign a petition demanding that Columbia do better on helping solve this problem. The working group also helped get intervention by Congressman Jerry Nadler to help. Only after this flurry of activity led by the GWC-UAW did the administration offer the emergency loans and take the political action that they now tout as evidence of their responsiveness.
| There are many structures at Columbia developed to support and enable students. School-based student governance and the Senate provide mechanisms for students to shape policies and programs. The Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) comprises representatives from all schools who offer the doctoral degree at Columbia, and is led by a Steering Committee elected by those student representatives. The GSAC Steering Committee meets regularly with the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and with the Provost to communicate student needs and concerns to the administration. Furthermore, all graduate and professional schools have student government organizations whose purpose it is to maintain fruitful communication with their faculty and dean. These close collaborations have resulted in significant enhancements in the lives of our students in the last ten years. Other structures exist to support and assist students:
● Gender-Based Misconduct Office is a centralized resource to support and provide assistance to all University students who have experienced or have been accused of gender-based misconduct.
● The Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action supports all members of the community with respect to equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and affirmative action.
● The Ombuds Office provides a confidential place to discuss and strategize about academic concerns, concerns about process, interpretation of policies and procedures, and many other issues.
● The International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) supports international students, faculty and researchers with advising and processing services related to U.S. federal immigration regulations, compliance, and other concerns.
● In addition, every School has a professional staff ready to help students with concerns and complaints of many kinds. The staff works with students and faculty to resolve such issues, but should resolution not be possible, a student may also avail herself or himself of each of the School’s grievance procedures.
|Groups like the Graduate Student Advisory Council are indeed critical to student life at Columbia, and they will continue to enrich our experience with or without a union. But GSAC leaders have repeatedly said publicly during the GWC-UAW campaign that GSAC does not have the same kind of power we would have through legally-binding process of collective bargaining. Listen to the former GSAC president, for example, in 2015 explaining that the only way our voices will really be heard “is through the collective bargaining of a union,” and again more recently supporting GWC-UAW in the upcoming NLRB election. And while the Provost indicates he meets “regularly” with the GSAC steering committee, the committee itself stated publicly in September that, “Contrary to the information on the Provost’s website concerning unionization, we have only met with the Provost’s office once in our entire history.”
Likewise, the other University-controlled structures mentioned by the Provost are critical to the functioning of the university, but none offer the kind of independent voice and power we could have through a union and a contract with a fair grievance procedure. Unlike the existing structures, under a typical union grievance procedure, an RA or a TA who, say, was sexually harassed, could take the dispute to a neutral third party arbitrator, rather than someone who works for the University, who would render a decision. Only a true grievance process, in which graduate students are represented by expert advocates and decisions are made by an impartial arbiter, can protect us in a situation of an internal conflict.
If these existing structures, such as the Gender-Based Misconduct Office, were truly effective, it is unlikely Columbia would be under investigation by the Obama administration’s Department of Education for failing to properly enforce Title IX of the US Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the 2015 campus climate survey conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) showed that across the board, less than half of Columbia students believed “it would be very or extremely likely that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation of a reported case of sexual assault or sexual misconduct.”
|Any student alleging sexual misconduct may be accompanied by an advisor of their choice at every stage and in every meeting related to the process. This includes the option to have an attorney-advisor. If a student chooses to have an advisor with them during the process, the advisor may always be present when a student speaks with Gender-Based Misconduct Office staff and therefore can be witness to their interactions at every stage. Columbia’s Gender-Based Misconduct Policy provides more information on the investigation and adjudication process for gender-based misconduct, the rights of students to respect, dignity, and sensitivity throughout that process, and accommodations for support and relief available to students affected by gender-based misconduct.||Again, Columbia is currently under investigation by the Obama administration for the failures of its gender-based misconduct protocols. A robust grievance procedure in which expert advisors are not simply an option but a guarantee can offer much greater protection; just ask those who have utilized these contract provisions themselves. At a time when nearly half of women graduate students experience sexual harassment, collective bargaining can offer protections not available to us as individuals without a strong contract which value cannot be overestimated.|
|Help is available for concerns about student payroll and stipend payments, and to assist in the resolution of related documentation issues. Although these issues are rare, addressing them when they occur is very important. Any student who has a concern about payments should call 212-854-5000 to reach a dedicated help line. For inquiries related to student accounts, tuition and fees, refunds, and transcripts, students can contact the Student Service Centers, which can be found at http://ssc.columbia.edu/.||The hotline is appreciated, but a hotline assumes that the problem will continue, or there would be no need for a hotline. What graduate workers want most is to be paid on time – an issue that we can prioritize when we bargain a contract with real legal recognition. Note also that the administration’s new hotline was announced on November 10, 2016 – a full two years after a majority of RAs and TAs signed up for GWC-UAW and President Bollinger acknowledged it was a problem — this kind of non-responsiveness is just another reason why so many of us want a union. Many graduate workers would also take issue with the assertion that late pay is “rare” at Columbia.
|Potential benefits under a union contract are unknown, but dues are a certainty. With union representation, compensation and benefits will be subject to collective bargaining and there is no guarantee that they will increase. Dues are more certain. The United Auto Workers at New York University (NYU) charges its members 2% of total compensation during the semesters in which a student is employed in a position covered by the union contract. At NYU, the union contract provides a mechanism by which the dues are automatically deducted from every paycheck. In addition to these dues, the United Auto Workers charges every member an initiation fee of approximately $50. If dues were the same 2% at Columbia, the annual net outflow from students to the union would be estimated at nearly $2 million every year – more than $550 per student, or the equivalent of a $50 million endowment.||The administration wants us to believe that dues will be “forced” on us without our consent. In fact, we only begin to pay dues once we have elected a bargaining committee, negotiated our first contact, and voted democratically to approve that contract. Voting yes to the contract would mean we believe it is “worth” the investment of paying dues to sustain our representation and to enforce our rights under our contract moving forward. Dues provide critical resources to be able to represent ourselves long term — read here about the great successes of the union at UW in enforcing their rights under their contract.
The robust participation in recent UAW academic contract ratification votes makes us confident we can achieve success here at Columbia as well.
|The experience of state universities cannot predict our experience here. Columbia is not governed by state laws, which in some instances forbid public employees from striking; nor will state law shield bargaining over academic issues at our University. At NYU, the only private university with a teaching assistant union, a strike initiated in 2005 lasted 10 months and another strike was threatened in 2014, before the current contract was signed.||The Provost would obviously prefer that we ignore the successful track record of other academic unions in the UAW, which you can find here, and instead promote fears about bargaining over academic issues and about the right to strike. While it is true that our relationship with Columbia is not governed by state labor laws, experience at other universities is actually quite instructive and very encouraging about both of his concerns.
On the desire to exclude “academic” issues from the scope of bargaining: first and foremost, the issues driving the GWC-UAW campaign – rampant late pay, unstable benefits, expensive dependent health insurance, lack of effective recourse for sexual harassment, to name a few – are not academic, so the concern seems misplaced. Moreover, the Provost would do well to look at NYU, a private university, and UConn, a state university where the statute does not specify the exclusion of academic issues from bargaining, because in both cases, the union and the university effectively agreed on how to exclude those issues from the contract. If NYU and UConn can reach such an understanding with the union, we have every confidence Columbia can too if it bargains in good faith. Finally, the existing scholarship on graduate worker unionization makes clear that collective bargaining has had no negative effect on academic relationships.
On strikes, the Provost’s presentation leaves out some very important facts and pieces of evidence. First, in 2005, the reason NYU graduate students voted overwhelmingly to strike was because the university refused to bargain with the union. Second, and more importantly, the right to strike is one of many potential tools for us in contract negotiations, but one that is used democratically and carefully — and the record from other universities, including NYU, shows that academic workers in the UAW have used the power of this right effectively and collectively as part of successful contract negotiations. The track record in recent UAW academic campaigns where the right to strike exists, strike votes have had majority support and have helped win strong contracts without striking, with subsequent majority votes in favor of those same contracts.
In a conversation with the Columbia University administration, we have received the following responses to our inquiries regarding possible unionization.
Regarding the University’s concerns about unionization, here is a
recent email from the Provost:
Dear Columbia student:
If teaching and research assistants are represented by the UAW, a new
group of union representatives will be inserted into the existing
conversation between student assistants and the University’s faculty
and administration, and we will all be governed by a regulatory
Other changes to the status quo are less certain and need to be
explained by UAW advocates:
Will increases beyond already-announced stipend hikes be larger than
the cost of union dues—likely 2% of income—that must be paid by every
member of the bargaining unit?
How does the UAW propose to overcome existing constraints on
University resources? Through reducing financial aid or making other
cuts to the budget? By recommending tuition increases?
Will a one-size-fits-all union contract capture the differences
between the goals sought, for example, by a doctoral candidate in the
humanities versus one pursuing an Engineering Ph.D.? A seat at the
table is important but will one seat, occupied by a UAW
representative, be sufficient for all student assistants?
What is the likelihood of a strike, perhaps one in solidarity with
other colleges or universities, that prevents lab access and disrupts
research in progress?
Are union representatives prepared to accommodate points of view among
its student membership that differ from those of the union’s
leadership, such as on the matter of H-1B visas?
Will the uninhibited debate on our campus be diminished by union-led
negotiations that, in other settings, have elevated the most strident
While collective bargaining will be unable to alter the University’s
resource constraints, it will change the process for deciding how
those resources will be allocated and how the terms and conditions of
teaching and research appointments will be set.
Collective bargaining also carries a monetary cost: Using the
compensation paid last year to graduate students on appointment at
Columbia as a guide, and assuming union dues of 2%, there will be an
estimated annual transfer approaching $2 million from members of the
bargaining unit to the UAW.
John H. Coatsworth
If the vote for unionization fails, what does the University intend to offer TAs/researchers to make sure they feel like they have a seat at the table when it comes to factors such as pay, benefits, insurance, etc?
As it stands right now, each school has its own student government to represent students with the administration. In addition, we have the University senate where faculty and students are on equal ground. There are already a number of ways students are represented and these have been successful so far. With a union, there will be 6 people to represent all of the schools and they will be negotiating like that.
With the current system, each school has their own representative. This allows them to push for school specific issues versus unions that will be collectively negotiated.
Professor Julia Hirschberg made the following comment in an email to Teaching Assistants in the Computer Science Department stating the following:
last night one student mentioned that the union could provide legal
support for students involved in sexual harassment cases. i just spoke
with suzanne goldberg, head of the gender-based misconduct prevention
task force, who says that for over 2 years Columbia has offered services
of a lawyer qualified in such cases free of charge to any student who
requests it. we are currently the *only* university in the u.s. who
This fact has been questioned by multiple student groups including No Red Tape who have claimed that this support is not offered. Does the University actually have an official policy stating this? Is there a website students can look at to confirm this?
3. Confirming this policy http://sexualrespect.columbia.
See “What are my rights?”
“Columbia University students may choose to have an attorney-advisor;
if requested, the University will arrange for an attorney-advisor at
no cost to the student.”
How to vote:
Voting will take place through November 8th.
Morningside Heights Campus – Earl Hall
Wednesday, December 7, 2016: 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM
Thursday, December 8, 2016: 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM
Columbia University Medical Center – Alumni Auditorium Lobby
Wednesday, December 7, 2016: 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM
Thursday, December 8, 2016: 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM
Lamont-Doherty – Sutton House
Wednesday, December 7, 2016: 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Nevis Laboratory, Irvington, NY – conference room at 136 South Broadway
Thursday, December 8, 2016: 10:00 AM – 12 Noon
To vote, you just need to bring your Columbia ID to your polling location. You should go to the voting location in which you are a current student. If you are eligible to vote, you will be able to proceed to the voting booths. If not, the NLRB (the organization running the vote) will give you a challenge ballot and will verify your eligibility later.
As stated by Provost John H. Coatsworth:
The unionization of student research and teaching assistants at Columbia would bring significant change to the University. We hope our academic community will consider this change thoughtfully and weigh its potential impact. Above all, we encourage all eligible voters to make sure to vote!
If you are eligible to vote, make sure you make your opinion heard.