Inside the Bargaining Zoom: Two Years In, No Contract for Graduate Students in Sight

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The cast of characters at bargaining meetings between the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers and the Columbia administration is almost always the same. Ludda Ludwig, a second-year doctoral candidate in earth and environmental science and a bargaining committee representative for GWC, listens patiently to yet another explanation of why Columbia believes that health benefits are outside the scope of a collective bargaining contract. Bernie Plum, the University’s outside counsel tasked with delivering these arguments—he previously represented Disney, the NBA, and the New York Times in their negotiations with employee unions—looks downward toward his screen as he speaks, glasses perched at the end of his nose.

The tone in the Zoom is cordial and never deviates from the same format: Each side takes turns calmly explaining their most recent changes to the proposals, retreat to separate calls to discuss on their own, and then come back with responses. Despite the tempered emotions on the calls, the consequences of these conversations are anything but trivial. The discussions have dragged on for nearly two years—an exceptionally long time for an academic union—with both sides accusing the other of inflexibility. After years of organizing, striking, and a landmark National Labor Relations Board ruling in the union’s favor, these negotiations will decide the terms of Columbia graduate students’ first labor contract.

Neither Columbia nor the union is willing to budge on numerous core issues within the contract. The University has not provided official counteroffers on some of the union’s primary bargaining goals, including harassment recourse procedures and health benefits, both of which are considered mandatory bargaining topics under federal labor laws. Seventeen out of 35 total proposals, including compensation, childcare resources, and international workers’ rights remain unresolved.

The University does not deny that those topics are subject to bargaining under the law. Instead, it argues that the articles cannot be part of this employment contract because graduate workers resolve their grievances and receive health benefits not as employees, but as students. This dual role, the atypical manner in which graduate workers straddle the line between a salaried employee and degree-seeking student, is at the heart of most disagreements between the University and the union.

Candidates for doctorates and master’s degrees are more than students; in many ways, they look a lot like full-time employees of the University. They teach up to three-quarters of Core Curriculum classes, conduct much of Columbia’s science and humanities research, and are paid stipends for their work that many rely on for living expenses.

Graduate student workers argue that their need for a union is distinct from that of other types of workers represented by unions. Their conditions are particularly precarious compared to other jobs because they rely on their employer—the University—for many aspects of their day-to-day lives.

“Many of us are students, workers, and tenants of Columbia University,” Joanna Lee, a second-year doctoral candidate in Chinese literature and bargaining committee member, says. “That combination puts a lot of us in a situation where labor protections have an impact on those other aspects of our lives.”

These vulnerabilities were especially evident when the pandemic upended graduate students’ lives last spring. Many faced loss of income and housing instability when summer appointments were canceled, despite both their stipends and rents being controlled by Columbia. Especially for students from lower-income backgrounds—for whom one missed stipend spelled financial ruin—the union presents an opportunity for a fair contract to help address the stark economic inequities between graduate students.

“A lot of what our contract is doing is just protecting everyone. But by protecting everyone, you’re really making improvements for those that need it most,” Miles Richardson, another GWC bargaining committee member, says. “For a lot of people, it doesn’t matter if they don’t get paid for a couple months, but if it does matter, that can just knock them completely out of the system.”

At recent bargaining meetings, some proposals have made progress, but several that would fundamentally redefine material working conditions and power dynamics between graduate students and the University remain at a standstill. Securing a contract through bargaining depends on major concessions from one or both sides—something that neither the union nor Columbia has shown interest in doing.

Columbia’s hesitation to treat graduate workers as employees should come as no surprise: When GWC began organizing in 2014, the University refused to acknowledge the union, citing legal precedent that private universities had no obligation to bargain with academic unions.

Moreover, in a 2015 statement, University President Lee Bollinger said that graduate worker unionization was “not necessary.” When GWC petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for recognition that year, Columbia submitted a brief arguing that “students have a primarily academic relationship with the University and therefore are not employees.”

The NLRB disagreed with Columbia. The landmark ruling overturned the previous precedent and affirmed the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize and bargain for a contract. The decision paved the way for graduate students at Brown University, Harvard University, and other private universities to form unions of their own.

Unlike many of its peer institutions, Columbia was not ready to give up its attempts to quell its graduate workers’ union. The University filed an objection to GWC’s first election and appealed the landmark NLRB decision to a higher federal court. Administrators refused to begin bargaining while the case made its way through the appellate system, prompting a weeklong strike in April 2018 that halted many classes and research activity. With no luck in the appellate court, Columbia finally relented and began bargaining the following February.

Still, graduate students’ dual position as students and workers has been a deciding factor in bargaining, leading to difficulty debating many of the union’s demands for benefits and procedural reforms.

One of the clearest displays of this tension is during debates over health benefits. Graduate workers are currently enrolled in the general student health insurance plan along with non-unionized, non-employed students. But for many, this health plan is not enough. The union proposes a slew of changes to the current benefit system, including full dental coverage, a $3,000 cap on out-of-pocket payments for individuals, and lower copays for prescription drugs and medical procedures.

Graduate students have long been frustrated with their health care benefits, but the issue came to a head when the University replaced its two-tiered plan with a single insurance option for all students in the fall of 2019. The change lowered costs for many students but raised copays for some people with a greater need for health and medical services. Nick Giangreco, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in systems biology, took full advantage of the higher-tiered plan before its elimination; he received regular rehabilitative physical therapy as he managed the impacts of a stroke he suffered as a teenager. When Columbia removed the higher-tiered plan, Giangreco’s physical therapy copays increased by $40 each month.

“Since the change in the insurance plan, I kind of stopped when I thought more acutely about my finances, especially in terms of what therapy I wanted to do,” he says. “From a financial point of view of the University, not as many people took advantage of that plan. But when I was on that plan, I took full advantage individually—it helped me out when I needed it.”

Columbia maintains that graduate students receive benefits through their roles as students, not workers, and therefore are not subject to collective bargaining.

“It is true that the University believes that the insurance plan provided to students is not a subject of collective bargaining because that coverage is provided to students as students, not workers,” a University spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Nevertheless, we have discussed the Union’s demand for specific changes to the Columbia Student Health Insurance Plan at length.”

Numerous bargaining discussions between GWC and Columbia administrators have focused on the inner-workings of student health care plans, including appearances from Associate Vice President and Medical Director of Columbia Health Melanie Bernitz. The University has also invited GWC representatives to join the Student Health Advisory Committee. This committee is made up of students from across Columbia’s schools and interfaces with Columbia Health, making non-binding suggestions for potential changes to the University’s health care system.

However, the union is not satisfied with Columbia’s rationale for excluding health benefits from collective bargaining. It argues that health care has long been established as a required bargaining topic for traditional unions under federal labor law, and points to precedent in other graduate workers’ contracts, such as Georgetown University’s, that include dental insurance and reduced out-of-pocket maximums. In October, the GWC released a public letter to interim Provost Ira Katznelson urging the University to “engage in good faith bargaining on health benefits and start putting on the table meaningful proposals on this topic.”

Rather than internal improvements, members of GWC’s bargaining committee feel strongly that including health benefits in their contract is the most reliable avenue of substantially changing them.

“There’s no accountability if there’s no contract. … A lot of things at Columbia get assigned to a committee to die in committee,” Richardson says. “There’s a basic lack of trust on our side about their willingness to do things outside a contract.”

Plum and University administrators have made it clear that even if they were willing to bargain over health care, the union’s proposal would add millions of dollars in expenses that Columbia isn’t willing to take on. Concerns over costs are also why Columbia has not responded to the union’s proposal to increase parental subsidies from $2,000 to $5,000 per child.

Proposals for Columbia to increase its spending on graduate students are not the only topics of contention—some of the most contentious articles are those that seek to change the rights and procedures entitled to graduate students in their relationship with Columbia. Chief among these are proposals to reform the grievance and arbitration process for graduate students who experience discrimination and harassment.

Addressing these recourse systems was one of the union’s main rallying cries in its fight for recognition. Specifically, the union has demanded the right to resolve disputes through a third-party neutral arbitrator, a process that exists in graduate union contracts at other universities including New York University and The New School, and aims to give graduate student workers recourse that is completely removed from any potential conflicts of interest.

“Your harasser could be the department chair or the director of graduate studies,” says Ludwig. “If it goes to arbitration, it’s neutral arbitration. So you have a decision-maker that’s not a dean at Columbia or your department chair.” However, the University remains steadfast in its belief that graduate students should be limited to the recourse procedures available to non-unionized students—Columbia’s offices of Title IX and Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

As a bargaining committee representative, Lee has grown accustomed to hearing stories of advisors demanding unpaid labor from their students as well as clear-cut bullying and abuse: yelling, gaslighting, and overworking to name a few.

“It’s so structurally part of the profession that I often think of that as part and parcel of the Ph.D.,” Lee says. “It really creates a situation where it often feels like in order for you to be successful in your program, you have to subject yourself to that type of treatment.”

Students and faculty have long expressed frustration with the current options for recourse, but the union’s problem goes beyond the protocol itself. Title IX and Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action processes are limited to misconduct that stems from someone’s identity as part of a protected class including gender, race, disability, or other defined categories based on systemic marginalization. But in cases when a graduate student worker experiences abuse that is not connected to their identity, or the EOAA investigation decides that identity was not a motivating factor—which is often true in the case of power-based harassment—recourse is not available to students. The union proposes that graduate workers should be able to file grievances for cases of power-based harassment that fall outside the scope of protected classes.

Much like the debates over health benefits, the University believes recourse reforms should take place within the existing structures and plans to invite the vice provost for equal opportunity and affirmative action to an upcoming bargaining session. Moreover, Columbia opposes creating new systems for graduate student workers to file these kinds of grievances or the possibility of taking misconduct allegations to arbitration. In a press release from March, Columbia argued that the union proposal would create an inequitable process in which “some students would be able to have their discrimination claim pursued to arbitration by the union while others in the community would not.”

William Gould, the former chairman of the NLRB and professor emeritus at Stanford Law School, takes issue with Columbia’s rationale. “The existence of arbitration to resolve disputes arising during the term of the agreement is a fairly common term of an agreement among academic unions,” he says. “The fact that it’s not available to non-bargaining unit people is a fairly unpersuasive argument.”

It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of the various issues in debate during the collective bargaining process, but a much larger conversation is taking place behind the contentious proposals and arguments between graduate students and their administrators. The formation of a contract between the union and the University presents an opportunity to redefine the value of graduate students’ contributions to the institution—it marks a distinctly new chapter in which graduate students aren’t just assisting courses and research as part of their own degree programs, but also contributing to the operation of the University and recognized as such.

It also can go a long way in increasing the accessibility of Columbia’s graduate programs. Pursuing a doctorate is out of reach for many low-income and marginalized students—not because they aren’t qualified or passionate enough, but because the system was not built to accommodate the needs of people without a safety net.

To Andrew Bishop, a third-year physics doctoral candidate and GWC bargaining committee representative, the conditions offered by graduate programs are especially important when applicants can choose between an academic path and the private sector.

“Even in the case when you can afford the fees and you can afford to move, you’re turning down a job where you could be making 50 percent more and you’re not necessarily guaranteed to graduate,” he says. “If you don’t have security that you’re going to make it through the Ph.D. program, it’s a huge risk to turn down a better paying [job], where you would still be getting experience in an industry, to go into this program.”

That has implications beyond the diversity of Columbia’s graduate schools; the people who come out of doctorate programs make up the next generation of American academia. However, there is still a long way to go until the two parties reach a contract that can help achieve that goal.

The University could open discussion on issues that it has refused to address so far, such as arbitration and health benefits, or the union could concede these elements and agree to a contract that lacks certain provisions bargained by many of its peers. However, for many members, the most pressing option is for the union to exert pressure on the University through a strike or litigation. The union’s general body already authorized a strike last spring; the bargaining committee can commence a labor stoppage with a majority vote.

For now, the GWC hopes to persuade the University through the bargaining process.

“We feel that there are just some unreachable differences and we see intransigence from Columbia and [striking] will very much be something that we will explore,” Lee says. “But right now I think Columbia has the power to avert such a situation if they continue bargaining in good faith.”

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