Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW: A Further Update

Ira Katznelson
May 06, 2021

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Not long ago, I wrote to express pleasure that the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW and the University had reached a tentative agreement with the help of effective federal mediation. That contract was put to a vote by the bargaining unit of some 4,800 student employees, about 2,000 of whom cast ballots. The balloting produced a close defeat for the union’s positive recommendation.

The quest for the perfect has postponed the very good. Of course, the University must respect the outcome of the referendum, albeit with deep concern for the missed chance to soon put into effect improvements, in some matters dramatic, to many aspects of student-worker lives. This delay of uncertain duration is a matter of widely-shared keen disappointment.

We are stuck in the status quo, a manifestly less good situation for all. In this context, it is important that we all understand what has been sidelined, and which benefits cannot be put in place until a contract is ratified. Scheduled to begin this summer, the three-year agreement would have guaranteed an array of noteworthy financial benefits and would have pioneered the right to independent appeals within the University’s equal opportunity and affirmative action (EOAA) process.

For doctoral student employees on twelve-month appointments the tentative agreement would have established a uniform minimum total support level in 2021-22 of $42,350, pro-rated for shorter appointments, followed by two 3% annual increments. The agreement also provided immediate compensation increases of no less than 5% for undergraduates and master’s students who hold appointments, increasing annually by 3%. Finally, it would have raised the minimum hourly rate for “casual workers” performing instructional services from $15 to $17 per hour immediately, and to $20 per hour by year three. Absent a contract, stipend levels and hourly compensation remain stuck at current levels.

These features do not exhaust the proposed material gains contained in the 36-page tentative contract. Among others, the provisions would include important health and child care benefits: expanded health insurance coverage of premiums for PhD students and their dependents; a support fund to help cover out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses; an enhanced dental discount to 25% from 10% for expenses above the free routine annual visit; a full doubling of the current child care subsidy; and assistance for adoptions and foster parenting. Also included in the document are generous vacation and leave of absence arrangements, as well as professional development support. Until we have an approved contract, current benefit levels will continue.

Nonetheless, the University will honor the commitment to allocate a portion of recently-awarded federal stimulus funds in the form of emergency aid to doctoral students on nine-month appointments. The process to apply for this assistance will be announced shortly.

International students face difficult and ongoing visa, travel, and health challenges. The contract guarantees policies the University has been practicing that allow such students who cannot get to campus to perform their duties remotely. It also confirms that they will be re-employed once they regain work authorization.

One of the most significant provisions in the tentative agreement would have been the establishment of a new appeals process for EOAA decisions. With an enacted contract, all Columbia affiliates would have gained the right to appeal EOAA outcomes to a neutral appeals officer, chosen from an independent panel in whose creation GWC-UAW would have participated. EOAA remains unchanged until we achieve a ratified agreement.

In all, after two years and some seventy bargaining sessions, the agreement endorsed by both bargaining teams would have placed Columbia in the lead with the most comprehensive and most robust graduate worker contract at any private university in the country.

The GWC-UAW is presently assessing its preferences and options. Too much time has been lost; too many accomplishments remain dormant. As we look forward to the University emerging from the pandemic, we very much hope to move beyond division and strife, joining forces in the fall to ever more effectively pursue our core purposes of scholarship and teaching. This achievement still beckons.


Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History