Striking workers union, Columbia University reach tentative agreement on $140 million demand

PhD student workers at Columbia University voted to end a 10-week strike that centered around pay and labor conditions.

The tentative agreement will be voted on beginning Jan. 22 and includes increased wages, benefits, and guidelines for returning to work post-strike.

A student-led strike at University of Columbia that could cost the university upward of $140 million has ended after achieving a tentative agreement. 

The strike, which consisted of students, activists, and local politicians, began on Nov. 3 to combat wages afforded to working graduate students. 

Tensions peaked, however, when picketers attempted to shut down campus on Dec. 8. The encounter was reported in an email by Provost Mary C. Boyce to have resulted in “physical harassment against faculty, students, and staff.”

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The push for demands is being led by the Student Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers (SCW-UAW), and ongoing meetings have recurred between the union and university officials. 

Increased wages are a primary topic of conversation, which was temporarily appeased in a Dec. 9 plan that granted the workers' demands. Ultimately, $43,621 and $37,716 will be allotted for 12- and 9- month appointments, respectively, while $42,766 and $37,074 will be granted for workers not on appointment. 

An increased stipend rate of 3% was additionally agreed upon. 

Now, an additional tentative agreement has been reached to bring the 10-week protest to a halt. The agreement was negotiated on Jan. 6, and 93.9% of strikers agreed to dismiss. 

“And so our strike has come to end today as of 11:50 am EST,” the announcement read.

The 62-page document establishes a four-year track beginning retroactively on Aug. 1. Negotiations for a second contract will begin on May 1, 2025. 

Contract provisions adhere to wage concerns. These include $43,100 for 12-month appointment PhD students was allotted for AY21/22, with the intent to increase 3% over contractual years. Additionally, $32,300 was allotted for 9-month appointments with a similar rate increase. 

Summer stipends also increased as $5,500 will be reserved for the upcoming summer and $6,000 for 2023. The rate is set to increase 3% over contractual years.

Hourly rates were bumped up, as well, and are effective immediately. The first year will establish a standard of $21 per hour and will increase an additional $0.50 per hour each year for the remainder of the contract.

The contract also addressed benefits student workers will have access to, including a Student Employee Support Fund beginning at $300,000 and to be increased by $50,000 and $25,000, respectively, over two years. Dental and vision plans are to be extended to PhD workers and dependents.

The COVID-19 Funding Extensions Side Letter section of the union's announcement states that PhD programs will, "Schools with PhD programs will identify students whose research plans and opportunities were interrupted or delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and provide additional resources beyond the funding guaranteed upon admission."

As agreed to under the Spring 2022 Semester Position/Back-Work Guarantee Side Letter section, workers who were affected by participation in the strike will be eligible to "make-up work." Furthermore, position placement for the spring semester will not be affected due to participation in the strike.

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“Achieving these significant improvements to our working conditions at Columbia has not been an easy process,” the announcement concludes. “It has taken years of collective effort and struggle to reach this point, and we are humbled by the contributions of the thousands of our members who stepped up to the plate and made their voices heard, all while taking material risks in service of a better future for present and future workers at Columbia and beyond.”

Next, a 15-day discussion period will be granted to allow the bargaining unit to “read and understand the terms of the contract,” and will expire on Jan. 21. 

Town halls will be scheduled to allow input from the members to be voiced, and a five-day voting period from Jan. 22 to Jan. 27th will be conducted to determine whether or not the conditions of the contract will be accepted. 

The Student Workers of Columbia tweeted about their success, stating:

“This is a historic moment for labor in higher ed, and it is just the beginning. We look forward to getting back to work and compensation for our back work.”

Since beginning the strike, student workers have accumulated thousands of dollars in debt, leading to organizers establishing a hardship fund to offset the cost. The funds would be used by student workers to pay late fees, rent, and bills that were forgone during the turmoil.

In a response to a request for comment, Columbia University referred Campus Reform to Boyce's Jan. 7 statement. Boyce expressed optimism in the text while acknowledging the "challenges" between the union and administration. 

The statement reads: 

Columbia University is only one example of a school being rocked due to consistent protest. Public schools in Chicago were forced to cancel classes last week due to a virtual walkout organized by the Chicago Teachers Union.

The union disrupted the schedule of nearly 330,000 students to protest COVID procedures guiding the return from winter break. 

In light of the Omicron variant, 73% of union members voted to stall in-person education through Jan. 18, or “until COVID-19 cases fall below a particular threshold,” despite courses being scheduled for in-person activity. 

This resulted in city leaders canceling a significant number of classes across the city.

In response, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot regarded the vote as “unconstitutional” and told participants that those who fail to return to work will not be paid. 

Campus Reform reached out to the Student Workers of Columbia for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.


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