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Columbia graduate workers end 10-week strike as tentative deal reached

The four-year agreement ends the longest strike in higher education in over a decade

Columbia University has reached a tentative agreement with its graduate student union to end a 10-week strike. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Columbia University’s graduate student workers on Friday ended the longest strike in higher education in more than a decade, after reaching a tentative agreement with the Ivy League school.

The deal brings the Student Workers of Columbia, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers Local 2110, closer to a new contract after months of tense negotiations and 10 weeks of picketing that resulted in the cancellation of some classes. It is the second agreement the union will be voting on after an earlier deal was rejected by members last spring.

“This really shows the power of democratic union politics,” said Johannah King-Slutzky, a union member and doctoral student in Columbia’s English department. “We had a tentative agreement before that for some of our members would have been an effective pay cut. We had to be more inclusive and fight harder.”

Are they students? Or are they employees? NLRB rules that graduate students are employees.

The four-year deal, covering more than 5,000 workers, guarantees minimum annual raises of 3 percent. It features workplace protections, including the right to neutral third-party arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination — a sticking point during negotiations.

The contract secures pay increases of up to 30 percent, comprehensive dental coverage and higher child-care stipends. It also establishes a $300,000 fund for out-of-pocket medical expenses and another similar fund for dependents.

“We’re seeing some of the biggest financial wins for the lowest-paid workers,” said Mandi Spishak-Thomas, a doctoral student at the School of Social Work and a member of the bargaining committee.

She and other graduate students in the School of Social Work were earning $23,000 for a nine-month appointment until this year when a pay bump took them up to $29,000. The tentative agreement will take them closer to $39,000.

In the last year of her degree, Spishak-Thomas has supplemented her earnings by drawing down savings accrued from years of working in her field. She considers herself fortunate but worries that the paltry stipends have been a barrier in attracting a more diverse student body.

“New York City is arguably one of the most expensive places in the country, so being closer to paying a living wage will help draw a diverse population that better reflects the community we serve,” Spishak-Thomas said.

All told, the university estimates the deal is one of the highest compensation offers in the country, representing an increase of nearly $100 million over the next four years.

“We are proud of this agreement, which would make Columbia a leader in higher education on a long list of issues affecting student employees,” Columbia Provost Mary C. Boyce said in a campuswide letter Friday. “There is no doubt that this has been a challenging period for the University, yet all who were involved in collective bargaining shared the common goal of creating a stronger Columbia.”

The union is slated to vote on the contract this month, with plans to announce results on Jan. 28.

Teaching assistants, research assistants and graduate students who lead their own courses stopped working on Nov. 3. The union had waged a shorter strike in the spring that ended with the tentative agreement that members voted down.

The more recent action arrived amid a wave of labor protests across the country and in higher education in the fall of 2021, including strikes at New York and Harvard universities. But the Columbia strike broke records, according to William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

Between 1966 and 1994, there were only six faculty strikes that lasted more than 50 days, he said. From 2012 to 2018, the average work stoppage lasted 2.9 days. While the length of the Columbia strike is remarkable, Herbert said the breadth of the union contract is more significant.

“The agreement has broad implications in higher education, particularly for private sector institutions, and might create a lodestar concerning the level of compensation and health benefits for graduate assistants,” Herbert said.

Columbia has a long and fraught history with the graduate labor movement.

Labor board withdraws rule to quash graduate students’ right to organize as employees

In 2015, the university urged the National Labor Relations Board to deny its teaching and research assistants the legal protections to join or form unions. Columbia, along with other Ivy League schools, argued the bargaining process could lead to lengthy and expensive bargaining to the detriment of all students.

Columbia graduate workers, who at the time sought to overturn a 2004 ruling that stripped them of the labor board’s protection, won their fight in 2016. Yet Columbia refused to recognize their union, until now.

Graduate students at 16 private universities nationwide have held elections to form unions since the 2016 ruling, according to the collective bargaining center at Hunter. Nine private institutions, including American and Georgetown universities, have contracts with graduate unions.