BY TALIA ABRAHAMSON
SEPTEMBER 30, 2021
Exasperated by the stagnation of negotiations and the recent changes in the wage structure, the Student Workers of Columbia – United Auto Workers voted 1,804 to 234 to authorize a strike. In doing so, the SWC-UAW gave a mandate to its bargaining committee to call a strike, which bargaining members promise to take place this semester if Columbia does not respond to the union’s demands.
This is the second leave vote in two years, as the union seeks to maximize its influence against Columbia to win its first employment contract. The SWC-UAW, which was renamed Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers following a summer of internal reform, surpassed its previous participation in the strike authorization vote of 128 members. Although the percentage of “yes” votes fell from 96% to 88.5% of valid ballots, SWC-UAW only needed a two-thirds majority of voters for approval.
The negotiating committee sees the vote as a sign of strength and a shared vision, especially after internal divisions narrowly resulted in the rejection of a tentative contract, which was struck during the spring strike. The union’s priority – which Columbia refused during more than two years of negotiations – remains to win the arbitration for non-discrimination and harassment. Student workers are also organizing against what they see as a 0% increase in retaliation, instead of the usual 3%, and a last-minute change in pay structures, which left some of them on nine-month appointments with a shortfall of $ 8,000 at the start of the semester.
Columbia maintains that both parties can negotiate these differences at the bargaining table.
“Union bargaining committees have historically sought and obtained a strike authorization vote at the start of bargaining. While we recognize the union’s right to strike, a fair contract can be reached without a strike and through good faith negotiations, ”said a spokesperson for the University. “The negotiating process has only recently resumed and deserves a reasonable opportunity to show progress.”
Like many of his colleagues on the negotiating committee, Nadeem Mansour, a fourth-year doctoral student studying the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, believes that this time the union is in an even stronger position. to force Colombia to make concessions at the negotiating table. The strength of the union comes from its ability to disrupt the functioning of the University. Now that the University has launched back-to-campus policies, SWC-UAW is planning more in-person picket lines. The latest strike, which lasted three weeks, took place mainly along digital pickets.
“This time around, we have thousands and thousands of students on campus,” Mansour said. “It will be very visible across campus with more participation from others and with an emphasis on a very clear and much more visible and impactful message.”
Another potential benefit for the union is Columbia’s growing difficulty in finding teaching assistants for classes, according to negotiating member Lilian Coie, a sixth-year doctoral student in neurobiology and behavior. By restricting first-year doctoral admissions in fall 2021 to most humanities and social sciences departments, Columbia lacks qualified instructors, meaning that course staffing has been a delicate balance for some departments. .
Added to this are the rise in enrollment in 2025 and discussions of further expansion of undergraduate enrollment. Coie said SWC-UAW’s student-workers are needed more than ever, especially because of these cost-saving measures.
“You have more students with less TA,” Coie said. “It makes their work all the more valuable, which is only good for us.”
Student workers did not receive a raise this fall, which Coie said has generated even more pro-union sentiment. Then-Acting Marshal Ira Katznelson warned in a May 6 email that after student-workers rejected the previous tentative agreement, “allowance levels and hourly pay remain stuck at current levels “until the union negotiates a contract. In response, on September 27, SWC-UAW filed an unfair labor practice charge, calling it illegal to terminate a benefit established during contract negotiations.
The negotiating committee hopes that whatever the outcome of the unfair labor practice charge, the student workers will get their wages back. Other major union demands include a $ 300,000 health care fund, comprehensive dental and vision care, unit recognition under National Labor Relations Board certification, and increased compensation.
“The goal of all the organizers is to have a contract by the end of this semester and to have this contract backdated to start on August 31,” Coie said.
Members of the unit complained about the lack of progress in the negotiations. Columbia’s negotiating committee, which also includes outside legal counsel Bernard Plum, declined to negotiate on open items until SWC-UAW comes up with a full set of proposals. The SWC-UAW sent a set of policies to a negotiation session on September 30. For the union, it feels like the last time, when Columbia retained some of its major concessions until the last week of mediation after a strike break. For the current bargaining committee and 1,804 student workers, it has become evident that the threat of a strike is the way forward.
“Nobody likes to go on strike,” Mansour said. “We’re doing it because we have to, because Columbia is pushing us to do it. Being able to get that number in such a short time – less than two weeks – is impressive and encouraging and proves to us that we can push and j ‘hope to land a good contract this semester. “
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