After a 10-week strike, student employees at Columbia University have won a tentative contract from the university that grants many of their demands for higher pay, better healthcare and stronger legal protections.
The strike began in November after the Student Workers of Columbia union, which represents about 3,000 undergraduate and graduate student workers and is a subset of the United Auto Workers, said the university failed to offer better pay in the newest round of contract negotiations.
“Currently, the University pays graduate student workers $6,000-$19,000 below a living wage according to the MIT cost-of-living calculator for New York City, depending on the program we’re in,” the union’s website said. “Some of our members have had to sign up for SNAP benefits (sometimes called “food stamps”) to make ends meet, particularly if they have caretaking responsibilities or raise children.”
With the spring semester set to resume January 18th under the spectre of a disrupted campus, Columbia administrators offered a tentative agreement late Thursday, union organizers said. The full union vote on the new four-year contract will take place later this month. If approved, the contract would take effect immediately and be retroactive to August 1st.
“The university certainly wasn't expecting that we can hold out for this long. So I think the success speaks to the student workers and their resilience,” said Ali Raj, a communications PhD student and union organizer, in a phone interview Saturday.
Among the new concessions are immediate raises for doctoral students ranging from 7% to 11% depending on the length of their appointments, with 16%, to 21% raises by the fourth year of the contract.
Hourly wages for instructional or research work will increase from $15 to $21 immediately, and then to $22.50 by August 2024. Healthcare and childcare benefits for students and their families were improved, and the university will offer arbitration and mediation services with independent third parties.
University officials called the new contract “one of the highest compensation offers in the country, representing an increase of nearly $100 million over the next four years.”
“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 for those who teach and learn, conduct research, discover and innovate, work and study here,” said the university’s provost Mary Boyce in an email to the student body Friday. “We are proud of this agreement, which would make Columbia a leader in higher education on a long list of issues affecting student employees, and we look forward to sharing more details in the coming days.”
The Student Workers union strike came after an earlier strike by the Graduate Workers of Columbia Union, who went on strike March 15th after two years of failed negotiating with the university over similar demands for salary and stipend increases and better healthcare funding.
The standoff between the university and the Student Workers union grew acrimonious, with protesters blocking school entrances after the university threatened to withhold job placements for striking workers, the New York Times reported.
The university did not pay wages during the strike, leading the union set up a hardship fund for striking workers to apply to receive weekly $275 stipends.
Raj, a teaching assistant at the journalism school, said he has not been paid about $7,000 and had to borrow money for rent and basic necessities from friends and family.
“I literally once borrowed money to buy groceries,” Raj said. “So yeah, essentially at this point, I am in debt to my friends and family. So that's money that I have to return to them.”
But the new contract offer allows for a fresh start, he said.
“We do feel that there is now room to mend the fences and to re-establish our association with the University in a more productive way,” Raj said.