This past Monday, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth announced that the university is willing to negotiate with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) and Columbia Postdoctoral Workers (CPW) unions, both of which are affiliated with United Automobile Workers (UAW). The announcement follows years of the GWC pushing the university to begin bargaining, and the union’s recognition by the National Labor Relations Board in 2017.
However, in order for bargaining to begin, both the graduate and postdoctoral workers unions must agree that future bargaining will follow the terms of a “Framework Agreement” negotiated by university administrators and top UAW officials. The agreement prioritizes Columbia’s role as a university over its role as an employer: it stipulates that Columbia must “manage the institution consistent with its educational and research mission.” The terms also would prevent the GWC and CPW unions from striking before April 6, 2020.
A group of about 100 members of the GWC union is circulating a petition encouraging fellow graduate workers to vote no on the Framework Agreement. Petitioners include students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of the Arts, and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation.
This petition encourages graduate students to vote no for two reasons. First, the Framework Agreement would prevent a strike until the spring of 2020. UAW negotiators have suggested that this clause of the agreement would not be legally binding and that the unions could still strike if Columbia does not bargain in good faith. However, the petitioners consulted experienced union negotiators and labor lawyers who have advised them that the language of the Agreement is standard no-strike language and would, in fact, be enforced in court. Under these terms, if the union were to go on strike, strikers would be at risk of losing their positions and the union could be sued for costs. “This amounts to removing our main weapon that would allow us to bargain for a fair and equitable contract. Columbia wants to bargain with us while our hands are tied behind our backs,” the petition argues.
Second, the Framework Agreement was negotiated by Columbia administrators and UAW officials without the input or participation of GWC and CPW members, including members of the bargaining committee. “Not a single graduate worker or post-doc knew about, let alone participated in, the negotiation of these terms,” the petition notes. The petition calls this process “undemocratic” and argues that it sets a “dangerous precedent” for future bargaining. If the Framework Agreement is accepted, the university will establish a trend of negotiating terms about its graduate and postdoctoral workers without actually consulting those populations. In addition, such a negotiation strategy sets a bad precedent for other student unions across the country.
“Letting Columbia unilaterally set the terms on which we bargain, including a no-strike clause, sets up a terrible precedent: universities will be empowered to remove the ability to strike as a condition for bargaining, that is at the precise moment when the threat of a strike is most necessary to achieve a strong contract,” the petition’s lead signatories wrote in a statement to Bwog. “It is common to have no-strike clauses once a contract has been agreed upon, rarely before.”
The Union for Graduate Employees at New York University (GSOC-UAW Local 2110), which is currently in negotiations with the NYU administration, made similar arguments against the Framework Agreement in a statement issued on Tuesday. “By insisting on [the no-strike clause], the Columbia administration reveals that they are threatened by the real possibility of a strike that would include not only graduate workers but also postdoctoral and clerical workers,” GSOC-UAW writes. Their statement additionally argues that “voting down this agreement is an opportunity to exercise democratic practice and strengthen the bargaining power of the union.”
Rachel Clary, a doctoral student in GSAS’s Neurobiology and Behavior department, believes that the concerns stated in this petition arise from misconceptions which the UAW bargaining committee addressed in a GWC general body meeting that took place on Tuesday. “I agree that the no-strike clause is a red flag,” she said, “but the average time to a first contract with a new union is 18 months, so not striking for the first 14 months of negotiations would be giving the negotiations a chance.” She also noted that members of the bargaining committee will be releasing a layman’s guide to understanding the Framework Agreement, including pros and cons of voting in favor of and against it.
“I would urge everyone who has signed the petition to wait and consider what the bargaining committee said is on the way before casting their vote,” Clary said.
The Framework Agreement will be “considered null and void” if both unions do not vote in its favor by next Wednesday, November 28. A GWC strike beginning on Tuesday, December 4 (with a deadline of November 30) has not yet been ruled out.
Bwog has reached out to the university for a response to this petition; we will update this article if a response is received.
The full text of the petition is included below. Petitioners ask only current members of GWC to sign.
To our fellow workers in GWC:
We are calling for a No Vote against the bargaining framework between Columbia and our union, which would severely weaken our union’s negotiating power and lower our chances of winning a fair and equitable contract with Columbia.
This is the first time in 17 years that Columbia has made any moves to bargain with us, and it is undoubtedly a huge victory. We’ve won the ideological battle! Columbia can no longer deny that we are workers and we have a right to collective bargaining given the tidal wave of campus support that’s been building especially over the last few months.
There are two important problems with the agreement (https://columbiagradunion.org/app/uploads/FrameworkAgreement20181119.pdf):
1. The framework agreement would prevent us from striking until April 6, 2020. This amounts to removing our main weapon that would allow us to bargain for a fair and equitable contract. Columbia wants to bargain with us while our hands are tied behind our backs. We got Columbia to this position by threatening strike action: this agreement would see us throw away that weapon.
Some have argued that this sketchy clause 8 is meaningless, that we could decide Columbia isn’t bargaining “in good faith” at any time and pull out of bargaining before April 2020. That is not right.
We’ve spoken to a number of experienced labor lawyers and to a senior union negotiator with decades of experience who interpret the language of clause 8 to mean that there cannot be a strike before April 2020. If we did go on strike, strikers could be fired and the union could be successfully sued for costs. Columbia would take us to Trump’s NLRB and accuse us of breaking the agreement. The language is ambiguous and we will fight over it if this agreement passes, but we’ll be putting ourselves in a tough position.
2. These terms of bargaining were negotiated behind our backs in secret by Columbia administrators and top UAW officials. This is not only undemocratic but also sets a negative precedent for other graduate worker unions. Not a single graduate worker or post-doc knew about, let alone participated in, the negotiation of these terms. Even our elected bargaining committee was excluded. That risks setting a dangerous precedent: that Columbia can make decisions about us without us and then bounce us into accepting them at the very last minute.
Columbia has so little respect for us that it refuses even to negotiate the terms of bargaining our contracts with us, its workers. So why should we trust their promises of ‘good faith’ bargaining? Any agreement to bargain that comes attached with a no-strike provision effectively ties our hands during negotiations.
We, the undersigned GWC members, urge our fellow Columbia graduate workers to vote no to Columbia’s current bargaining framework: Bollinger’s dodgy deal.
We, the undersigned GWC members, ask that following a no vote the bargaining committee should go to Columbia with a counteroffer that deletes the no-strike clause from the bargaining framework. Columbia has now acknowledged it is willing to bargain with us, so we need not take their first offer. We should negotiate for a better one. We are close to the finishing line; we know that Columbia is scared of our strike so let’s use that leverage to get a good deal.
Photo via Bwog archives