The graduate student union has been bargaining for eight months. Where do negotiations stand?

In November of last year, Columbia announced its plans to begin bargaining with Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW, putting an end to an almost two decade-long battle for recognition. Bargaining officially began the next semester, on Feb. 25.

The University’s landmark decision to bargain with GWC came after a weeklong strike in April 2018 with threats of an indefinite strike looming later that year. However, the Framework Agreement agreed upon by both parties for negotiations stipulates that the union can not authorize any strike until April 6, 2020.

Since then, the University has met with GWC in bargaining sessions on over 15 occasions, including seven times over the summer, during which a multitude of proposals were presented by both parties on issues, such as healthcare, travel reimbursement, and access to employment files, in order to negotiate a final contract.

So far, the parties have only come to two tentative agreements: The rest of the Framework Agreement will remain in place if one part is found to be unlawful, and a joint committee between the union and Columbia will meet quarterly to discuss the management of the Agreement.

Despite these tentative agreements, there are still a wide number of issues that remain in the process of negotiations, including procedures around discrimination and harassment, policies for international student, and workspace resources. The two parties will resume their conversation during the next bargaining session on Friday, Oct. 18.

The University declined to comment on all of the following matters despite repeated requests from Spectator.

Discrimination, harassment, and the grievance procedure

One central point of contention between GWC and the University negotiations remains the grievance procedures for cases of discrimination and harassment. GWC has two separate proposals: a general one for all grievances and arbitration procedures, and a second one for discrimination and harassment. Both aim to provide more straightforward avenues through which graduate students can file complaints and undergo investigations on a faster timeline.

The grievance procedure proposed by the GWC as of now has a three-step process for resolving issues, with each step limited to seven calendar days. If the issue was not resolved at the end of that time frame, then it would go to a neutral arbitrator for independent recourse. Under the union’s proposed procedures, issues like allegations of discrimination and harassment would be able to receive an expedited process which would initiate the union’s proposed grievance procedure at the step before neutral arbitration.

“[With the new procedure], graduate workers would be able to lodge issues and expect real responses that typically have not been the case by the [Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] previously. In the process, it will make graduate workers safer,” Rebecca Glade, union member and history graduate student, said.

In comparison, the University’s proposal on discrimination and harassment reiterates its stance on providing an environment free of discrimination, but does not suggest any new procedures. Instead, as part of its grievances proposal, the University will allow for the Agreement’s arbitration process to be conducted, but only after fully exhausting pre-existing procedures established by the EOAA. These procedures involve options for arranging informal resolution, as well as investigation process, which can vary “based on the facts, nature, and complexity of the circumstances giving rise to the investigation.”

According to summaries of a bargaining session on Aug. 14, both the University and GWC consider the University’s most recent proposal to be a step in the right direction in acknowledging the need for a neutral arbitrator. The GWC, however, rejected the proposal, as it would add to the length of time an EOAA investigation already requires.

Additionally, members of the union such as Batul Hassan, a member of the bargaining committee and second year MPH student from the Mailman School of Public Health, emphasize that the EOAA’s procedures are not reliable enough.

“Part of why I think the discrimination article is so important to the contract is because the EOAA and the other university systems have so thoroughly failed grad workers,” Hassan said. “That Columbia would expect us to go through this procedure that is incredibly opaque and is essentially the university policing itself … It does the opposite of [giving] student assistants that have experienced discrimination and harassment a real voice in their own process.”

Although the EOAA procedures set a time frame of 60 days to resolve complaints, the EOAA notes that time frames to address cases may vary during the year and further reserves the right to extend any time frame. Last year, the EOAA’s first annual report showed that 30 percent of all sexual harassment complaints came from graduate students. Despite a majority of sexual harassment cases being resolved within the first 60 days, some complaints lasted for up to 300 days—almost an entire calendar year.

Member of the bargaining committee and teaching assistant for the philosophy department Helen Zhao highlighted the importance of an expedited grievance procedure.

“If, for instance, a student worker experienced harassment or discrimination during their last semester at Columbia, this [vague time frame] would provide huge disincentive for even filing a complaint,” Zhao said. “Who wants to be dragged through this not knowing when it will end, not knowing if anything will come of it?”

International student workers

The topic of international student workers came to a head within the union in 2015, when Longxi Zhao, a former Chinese Ph.D. student in the department of chemical engineering, was fired from his teaching assistant and research jobs after being accused of harassing others (he used the word “fucked” in an email to students to describe CourseWorks) and taking unapproved vacation. As a result, he was unable to find an advisor and continue the Ph.D. program. Despite a petition led by GWC for Zhao to be reinstated, Zhao was ultimately forced to leave the country after being unable to continue the program.

International students must also face the limitations of federal law when facing disciplinary charges at the University level. Over the past several years, President Donald Trump’s approaches to visa and immigration policies have impacted affairs at the university level, worrying members of the Columbia community and, in some cases such as Harvard, even causing the deportation of students.

GWC’s proposal on international student workers is not limited to requests for an expedited grievance procedure. The proposal also calls for the barring of all U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from campus, as well as prohibiting the disclosure of a student employee’s immigration intents or documentation status.

During 2016, fears over Trump’s intentions to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals out prompted the University to respond. In an email to students, then Provost John Coatsworth reaffirmed the University’s commitment to its international student body.

“The University will neither allow immigration officials on our campuses without a warrant, nor share information on the immigration status of students with those officials unless required by subpoena or court order, or authorized by a student,” Coatsworth’s email read.

Columbia has not mentioned becoming a sanctuary campus in its own proposal to GWC, nor has it reached a tentative agreement with the union on this point.

Former member of the bargaining committee and research assistant for computer science Noura Farra, SEAS ’19, was left confused by this seemingly contradictory policy.

“The idea is if it’s something that there’s no philosophical objection to and they have already made a verbal commitment, then there’s no reason that we can’t have it in the contract,” Farra said.

Federal forces can also impact international student workers in a number of other ways, some out of the University’s control, such as challenges navigating systems of Social Security, taxes, and visas. Navigating these systems can often prove to be difficult given the technicality of their nature.

The International Students & Scholars Office at Columbia is able to help members of the University with affairs such as employment, travel procedures, and tax filing. However, many international students do not feel that the office is enough, according to union members. Helen Zhao, as a member of the bargaining committee, said she has received complaints from colleagues about the ISSO’s ability to handle taxes in particular.

As a former international student and member of the bargaining committee, Farra stated that the assistance provided by the ISSO was not enough in light of national trends, and emphasized the proposal’s request for access to alternative legal assistance options.

“If [the University] just [comes] out and [says], ‘Oh, the international student office will continue to provide services,’ just keeping the status quo, then that is not something that we think is going to be helpful,” Farra said. “[Our] article has many other provisions as well. One of them is that we would like to provide fully subsidized legal advice for international students and workers. That lawyer would be able to help you with taxes, visa issues, [and] employment opportunities.”

Access to workspace and proper materials

As the University struggles with its own challenges of classroom space shortages, even having to expand off campus in some cases, GWC has been pushing for more appropriate office and workspace for graduate workers.

Currently, the University does not provide a desk for every one of its student assistants, and the number of desks available is dependent on individual departments. One of the provisions of GWC’s workspace and materials proposal would aim to solve this problem by providing a desk for all student assistants.

“We’re not asking for an individual office for every SA; that would be maybe unreasonable,” Zhao said. “We’re just asking for a desk.”

Zhao said that she finds it difficult to adequately perform her work without a desk in the philosophy department, mentioning that many of her colleagues across other departments have no choice but to hold office hours in public settings such as cafes in Avery and Butler.

She also pointed out the potential drawbacks of graduate workers not having a desk for undergraduate students.

“[Having to meet in a public setting] is fine, but can also be less conducive to conversations where students, for instance, open up to their TAs about personal difficulties they’re having with the class, concerns they’re having with the class, issues that are less appropriate to be shared in such a public setting,” Zhao said.

Although the University’s “issue-by-issue” page indicates that the University agrees with the union that it should “provide access to facilities, equipment and material required to perform assigned duties,” no agreement has been reached over the workspace and materials proposal.

The next GWC bargaining sessions have been confirmed for Oct. 18 at 9:15 a.m. in Studebaker 469, and Oct. 23 at 9:15 a.m. in Mudd 520.

Staff writer Teddy Ajluni can be contacted at Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

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