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GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia

Columbia Reaches Contract Framework Agreement with Grad Students

The agreement ends a two year battle by the students to get the Ivy League University to negotiate with the union

Daniel Hinton's picture
Nov 26, 2018

The New York Times published an article on January 31st with the headline, “Columbia University Says It Won’t Bargain with Graduate Student Union.” Tuesday, less than 10 months later, the university’s own press release announced, “Columbia and UAW Reach Framework Agreement.” What happened to make the administration flip their script?

For one, the graduate students were well organized and militant. They voted overwhelmingly to join the UAW in December 2016. They went on strike at the end of the spring semester from April 24th-30th and threatened to strike again at the end of the current semester, unless their demands for a collectively bargained contract were met. Fortunately, for all involved, they were.

The overall strategy was one of “relentless disruption.” Instead of challenging Columbia in the right-wing federal court system under the Trump Administration, the union decided on constantly pressuring the administration with effective direct action like the strike. This was key, as federal courts and the NLRB’s decisions tend to set precedents across the industry and country, which could jeopardize ongoing union efforts at other schools and workplaces, like for the grad students organizing at Harvard.

The union and students played their hand right, and the administration folded.

Officially known as the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW (GWC-UAW) and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers of Columbia-UAW (CPW-UAW), the newest bargaining units at Columbia University have made history. The postdoctoral union is the first of its kind at any private university in the United States, and Columbia grad students join the growing movement of unionization on campuses from their neighbors at NYU to their Ivy League counterparts at Harvard.

Like federal court rulings, labor agreements also set precedents. By agreeing to negotiate and ultimately sign a collectively bargained agreement with graduate and postdoctoral students, Columbia University, which is the fifth wealthiest and fifth oldest institution of higher education in the United States, has effectively recognized the labor movement among its largest labor pool: students. This should also help to start a ripple throughout the Ivy League schools as other institutions like Harvard are playing hardball and Brown is preparing for a union vote. 

These students don’t only study, though they do a lot of that too, they also work full-time, if not overtime. That means, like any other worker, the majority of their day is spent at work: teaching, grading papers and assignments, doing research, and consulting with faculty members.

At a top-notch university like Columbia, this type of work has generated tens of billions of dollars in revenue through its storied 264-year history. The same is true at other private and public universities that have undergone unionization.

As graduate degrees become more common and more women and minorities than ever before join the ranks of academia, these organizing drives will become more vital to employment on college campuses. While health care and fair pay are always near the top of the list of demands, child care, equal employment opportunities, and protection from sexual harassment or any kind of discrimination are major parts of the bargain. Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger admitted as much in his announcement: “[T]he union can play a constructive role in advocating for or representing survivors of sexual assault and harassment and other forms of discrimination and may negotiate for additional procedures.”

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