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A Pivotal Moment for the Graduate Student Unions

By Amad Otis Ross

By Wednesday, November 28th, the Columbia graduate student union will have decided whether to agree to a framework for negotiations offered by the university. Should the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) and the Columbia Postdoctoral Workers (CPW) agree to the framework, the university will for the first time begin bargaining with both unions by February 25th, marking a turning point in the years-long struggle for the right to negotiate contracts for better working conditions and better wages for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Should the unions reject the framework agreement, they will strike beginning December 4th.

GWC and CPW, which have been legally recognized unions since August of 2016 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided that teaching and research assistants may be treated as employees, have previously been stonewalled by Columbia University, which has appealed the NLRB decision to federal court and refused to recognize both unions. Although nine private universities—including New York University and The New School—have agreed to bargain with their graduate workers, the framework agreement is the first indication that Columbia University is willing to negotiate with its own.

The framework agreement, offered on November 19th, seems motivated by the threat of a graduate worker strike on December 4th. But many in both unions have misgivings about the framework, not least because it was compiled without input from the graduate workers themselves. Both unions are partnered with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, a larger and historically significant union, however some members of both CPW and GWC have expressed frustration that Columbia offered this framework agreement after going around the bargaining committee of the GWC and meeting with UAW staffers. Neither party consulted nor reported these negotiations to the rank-and-file members of GWC and CPW.

One particular cause for concern is the framework’s “no strike” clause, which mandates that the two unions “shall not authorize or condone any strike… work stoppage, slowdown, or other interference with Columbia’s operations” until April 6th, 2020. There is  worry that without the threat of a strike, graduate students will have no leverage in their negotiations with the university. The Barnard-Columbia Socialists have come out strongly in opposition to the agreement, writing, “We don’t see why it makes any sense to give up the ability of to strike for the next 18 months while a contract will be bargained. A no-strike clause would tie the union’s hands before they even get to the bargaining table.” NYU’s graduate worker union has criticized the agreement in similar terms, concluding that “We urge that you reject the pledge not to strike until April 6, 2020.”

These concerns and more are articulated in a petition signed by over 400 graduate workers titled “Vote No on the No-Strike Deal,” casting doubt on initial appraisals of the framework as a great victory for the union. Whether the unions accept these terms and the university side-steps the strike remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: neither side had much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving break.

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