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Why Columbia Student Workers Are Back On Strike

Frustrated by slow contract negotiations, Columbia University graduate students have gone on strike for the second time this year, with a work contract and the university’s fraught relationships with its graduate students on the line.

Student Workers of Colombia, a local 2110 autoworkers union of about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has been on a sit-in to secure greater worker protections and higher wages since the beginning of the month.

It is one of a growing number of student labor unions striking for better working conditions across the country, including at New York University, which struck a contract after striking in the spring, and Harvard, where a three-day strike ended in early November with an agreement.

Columbia University indicated it would only consider important concessions through the mediation that began on Monday. The university declined to comment, citing instead the statements made by the administration and distributed at the campus level.

With the holidays approaching and towards the end of the semester, pressure is mounting on the university and the student labor union to come to a deal and get the campus back to normal life.

Several union members said they were pushing hard for higher wages to enable more low-income students to attend Columbia University. They said the current pay scale excludes prospective students who cannot earn a living from graduate student income alone.

“I think there is a perception that the higher labor movement is unimportant because a lot of people in schools like Columbia come from privileged backgrounds, and I think that’s true, to an extent,” said Johanna King-Slutzky, 31, a doctoral student in the Department of English at Columbia. And a union member.

“But I also think one of the reasons the labor movement for higher education in Colombia and elsewhere is so important is that we really need to make this more accessible to people who don’t have a safety net to come back to.”

Here’s a look at the demands of student workers and what’s next for the strike.

The strike began on November 3, when dozens of student workers stopped working for a school sit-in. Workers include teaching assistants, research assistants, and registered teachers, who are graduate students who teach their own classes.

Union members estimate that about 130 classes have been canceled for the remainder of the semester due to the teachers’ graduation strike. Most of these classes are compulsory core classes for undergraduates, members said, and there are about 300 of them.

The first strike this year, which began in March and lasted more than a month, ended after the union reached a preliminary agreement with the university. But union members rejected the agreement amid reports of internal tension and discontent with the union’s bargaining committee. In May, all 10 members of the negotiating committee resigned.

With a mostly new negotiating committee in place, the union voted to allow a second strike in early November after members expressed renewed frustration over the slow negotiating process.

The university said it believed the strike could have been avoided, and that negotiations should be allowed to bear fruit.

Students working at the university are demanding higher wages, dental and vision health coverage, and impartial third-party arbitration of discrimination and harassment cases.

The union requires a minimum wage of $45,000 for doctoral students on one-year contracts, with annual increases of 3 percent in years two and three.

Compensation for graduate students in Columbia varies by department, but union members said the annual wage is as low as $29,000 for students in the College of Social Work, peaking at about $41,500 for engineering students.

The union is also demanding a minimum wage of $26 for hourly workers. Lilian Coy, 27, a doctoral student in neuroscience and a member of the bargaining committee, said the current minimum wage is $15 an hour, although the minimum for doctoral students is often closer to $17 depending on their department.

During the first day of the strike on November 3, several working students shared stories about going to food stamps to make ends meet and reconciling rent payments with student loans.

Sam Stella, 33, a fourth-year doctoral student in the debt department and a union member, said he has less than $10,000 to spend a year after paying rent and daycare. He and his wife were unable to take their 3-year-old son to a dentist because they had to pay for the visit out of their own pocket.

“If you are a parent in New York and live on Columbia wages, then everything you do is more difficult and should be considered more carefully,” Mr. Stella said.

Higher wages will also help attract students from a wide range of backgrounds and create a more diverse student body, said Mandy Spichak-Thomas, 31, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work and a member of the negotiating committee.

“The living wage would really benefit Colombia,” said Ms. Spishak-Thomas. “They would be able to recruit a really competitive group of students if they gave us a livable package.”

One of the union’s biggest priorities is getting more third-party protection for students filing discrimination and harassment claims – also known as neutral arbitration.

Neutral arbitration will allow students who allege harassment or discrimination to appoint investigators or attorneys unaffiliated with Columbia, outside of the university’s internal complaints review process.

Graduate student workers are the only workers on campus who do not have the option of third party arbitration due to discrimination and harassment. Union members have argued that confining complaints of discrimination and harassment to the university’s internal review process creates an inherent conflict of interest when assessing a student’s case against faculty or advisors.

The administration has resisted this demand, though it said it would be open to further negotiations about its policy during the mediation.

In March, Ira Katznelson, then the university’s interim rector, proposed an appellate board composed of higher education officials and labor law experts unaffiliated with Columbia, which would hear appeals of university case decisions on a rotating basis.

Union members said they had heard several stories from student workers of harassment or abuse from their advisors. These workers, they said, were generally afraid to come forward and report for fear of the consequences, or they felt the university would only slap faculty on the wrist.

In his March note, Mr. Katznelson said the university was not opposed to arbitration ostensibly, but that because graduate students are both students and staff, it would be difficult to determine when an arbitrator should be brought in and what evidence should be considered.

Katznelson wrote, “There can be many instances marked by an extreme lack of clarity, fraught with ambiguity.” “Did the alleged behavior occur while the student was on a task? In the work environment? Or not? There could be many controversies.”

The message that union members received from the university, they said, was that it believed its bylaws could protect its students.

“They miss the point, which is we don’t feel protected by Colombia, and we’re totally exploited workers in their workplaces,” said Ms Spishak-Thomas. “It’s a complete ideological difference.”

Among other proposals, the university has offered to raise wages for doctoral students on 12-month contracts to $42,766, with annual increases of 3 percent, and offer transitional support for graduate students, including funding for an entire semester, if they need to leave positions. Unhealthy academic advising.

The university offered to increase the minimum hourly wage to $19, bringing it to $21 after three years.

It also proposed raising the annual childcare salary from $2,000 to $4,000, which would apply to children up to 6 years old. The union agreed to remove a provision requiring health care benefits for students who work less than 10 hours per week, as well as undergraduate and master’s students.

Columbia said it is open to discussing granting students the right to pursue third-party litigation over complaints of discrimination and harassment during mediation.

The university emphasized that it believed mediation would be more beneficial to negotiation efforts than a strike.

According to faculty negotiation updates, the university estimates that union demands will exceed $100 million over the next three years, though union members said their three-year estimate was closer to $79 million.

Arriving for comment on the strike and ongoing negotiations, a university spokesperson referred to a campus-wide letter sent on Monday by Mary C. Boyce, the university’s dean. She said the university would take “every reasonable step” to end the strike as quickly as possible.

“Entering in mediation is an encouraging step that holds the promise of resolution,” Ms. Boyce wrote. “However, the power to hold the strike remains in the hands of the union.”

Open mediation began on Monday, which both the university and the union hope will help bridge the gap between their proposals and strike a contract that everyone can agree on.

Meanwhile, the strike will continue. Union members said they are ready to strike until the end of the year.

“This has been a really long battle for everyone,” Ms. Cui said. “The goal has always been to get that contract by the end of this semester. That’s why we really have to make this hit as effective as possible, because that’s it.”

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