UAW secures second tentative agreement at Columbia with de facto pay cuts

Columbia University in New York and the Student Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers (SWC-UAW), the union of more than 3,000 doctoral, master’s and undergraduate graduates, announced last Thursday that they reached a four-year agreement in principle. (TA), ending a 10-week strike by student workers. The deal will be voted on later this month.

This recent TA follows a previous TA that was powerfully rejected by the base in April for falling far short of their demands. While this second TA has been hailed by leaders on both sides, as well as Democratic politicians and pseudo-left forces, as a “historic deal”, an objective examination of the contract shows that it is not. nothing.

In a section of the SWC-UAW website explaining why they were on strike, they write: “Currently, the University pays graduate students $6,000 to $19,000 below a living wage according to the cost calculator of MIT life for the city of New York, depending on the program in which we participate. Some of our members have had to sign up for SNAP benefits to make ends meet, particularly if they have babysitting responsibilities or are raising children. Other members (your TAs, RAs, and Instructors) had to move to entirely different cities to offset the cost of rent [during the summer].”

Columbia graduate students on strike. (WSWS Media)

Keeping these numbers in mind, the newly arrived TA is offering 12-month doctoral students, whose minimum salary is currently $41,520, a raise of just $2,480, bringing their annual minimum salary to $44,000. This year. Similarly, nine-month doctoral students, whose minimum salary with an additional summer allowance is currently $35,140, ​​would only receive a raise of $3,360, bringing their minimum salary with an additional summer allowance to $38,500 this year.

However, even though the contract would be retroactive to August 1, 2021, these first-year pay rates will actually be lower because Columbia, as part of its brutal strategy to try to starve the strike, withheld student pay in strike during the 10-week strike period and do not guarantee salary arrears. While a cover letter in the TA states that “schools and departments will identify and make available to returning strikers remedial work opportunities consistent with program needs,” it is currently unclear. for working students – who owe thousands of dollars in debt from being on strike and receiving the meager UAW strike pay of just $275 a week, despite a strike fund of nearly $800 million – what that means, especially after some departments hired scabs to work in the past semester.

An SWC-UAW email sent this week said, “We know that back pay is a big cause of anxiety for members of our unit, and while we hope departments commit to compensating all lost wages, we are preparing for the event that some cannot. Many rank-and-file members of the union oppose accepting a TA when there was no guarantee of back pay and no explanation from Columbia of how the job would be compensated and paid. One student tweeted: “Technically the strike is over but instead I’m spending 100% of the time trying to earn back pay so I’m just as beleaguered.

On top of that, the TA would only provide 3% annual increases – the same amount as in the previous TA that was rejected and widely hated by students. For hourly workers, whose current minimum wage is New York’s poverty minimum wage of $15 an hour, their minimum wage would only increase to $21 an hour with increases of 2.5% during each year of the contract.

By comparison, SWC-UAW’s initial demands were $47,800 per year for 12-month doctoral appointments, 5%/4%/4% annual salary increases over the three-year contract, and a $35 hourly minimum. .

Factoring in the historic rise in inflation, which has now reached 7%, coupled with the contract-required 2% UAW union dues, working students at Columbia would take a de facto pay cut as a result.

To distract working students from this bleak reality and entice them to ratify the TA, Columbia is offering a Contract Ratification Bonus of $500 for doctoral students and $250 for master’s and undergraduate students.

For health care, the TA is creating a $300,000 student employee support fund through Columbia—separate from the health care benefits program available to all students—for out-of-pocket medical expenses, which increases by $50,000. $ the second year and $25,000 the last two years of contract. Yet the total disbursements for over 3,000 student workers can easily run into the millions of dollars. The contract also includes 75% dental coverage by Columbia, but the bargaining unit’s claim for vision care coverage was dropped.

Significantly, the new TA, just like the old TA, includes a no-strike clause for the four-year term of the contract, if passed. This infamous clause in the union contract actually prohibits workers from taking organized action against their employer.

The AT includes an arbitration option for student workers who file a grievance, but is only possible after 75 days after Columbia’s internal Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) process has not resolved the issue , corresponding to the post-doctoral language of the SWC-UAW. sister union contract.

Also worth noting are the two cover letters from the TA. The first states that “Upon ratification of this Agreement, the Union agrees to withdraw with prejudice all unfair labor practice charges filed against the University with the NLRB”. The SWC-UAW filed these charges against Columbia after the university threatened to fire striking students amid the strike.

The other cover letter cites Columbia’s “right to determine or vary the number, qualifications, schedule, responsibilities, and assignment of student employees,” which gives the university leeway to unit erosion—the elimination of graduate student positions—if she wants to save more money.

How is this sellout deal, which was negotiated by a new bargaining committee dominated by a reformist group called Workers Empowerment, promoted?

SWC-UAW leadership viewed the AT as a “historic moment for labor in higher education” and, perhaps admitting more than they bargained for, an example of how unions” work”. Yet days before the TA arrived, the SWC-UAW bargaining committee told student workers that the downsides of moving to a four-year contract (SWC wanted three years, Columbia wanted five years) included being “locked in with low pay rates among other weak points in our contract, longer” and admit that the contract they negotiated does not provide for a living wage.

The pseudo-left also hailed the TA. The Twitter account of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America tweeted: “Strikes work! Congratulations SWC-UAW on your win,” while Democratic Congressman and DSA member Jamaal Bowman and New York City Councilwoman and DSA member Tiffany Cabán tweeted similar statements. An article in the Morenoite left voice, which is affiliated with the Socialist Workers’ Party in Argentina, said: “This struggle should be seen as an inspiration to other higher education workers and other unions in all sectors. Working notes Writer Jonah Furman said Columbia student workers “won a deal that includes important articles” and is “a big breakthrough for workers in higher education” on his blog.

This concession-dressing tactic was also continued last semester at New York University, where the BC for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee-United Auto Workers (GSOC-UAW) negotiated a six-hour no-strike contract. years which was also presented as a “historic victory”, after three weeks of strike.

Meanwhile, Columbia is touting the contract as “one of the highest compensation offers in the nation, representing an increase of nearly $100 million over the next four years.” University provost Mary Boyce emailed the student body saying, “We are proud of this agreement, which will make Columbia a leader in higher education on a long list of issues affecting student employees. .

Put simply, the TA is a drop in the ocean for Columbia, which is a $25 billion institution that has seen its assets grow by $3.33 billion in the past year alone. Columbia pays its president Lee Bollinger, who is the highest-paid private college president in the United States, a salary of more than $4 million a year. Two days after obtaining the TA, it was announced that Columbia bought the former Fairway Market site in Harlem for $84 million in cash! A Twitter user commenting on the purchase with insight wrote, “Go ahead, Columbia! Putting that big 84 on the table for prime real estate after spending months crying the poor mouth out with your grads! »

Taken as a whole, the UAW experience at Columbia is a case study in the utter bankruptcy of pro-corporate unions.

As we wrote earlier this year:

Columbia’s hardworking students, who have been fighting a brave fight since 2014 against the obstruction of one of the world’s wealthiest universities, must draw the necessary conclusions from their experiences, especially from the past year. They must advance demands based not on what the university claims it can afford, but on what the workers need. No progressive struggle can be waged within the framework of the UAW and the AFL-CIO labor apparatus, which has done everything to artificially suppress the class struggle.

For their struggle to advance, graduate students must not only build new independent organizations of struggle, but these organizations must adopt a new political strategy, based on the international working class and independence from the two capitalist parties.

The struggle for decent wages, affordable health care and housing, and quality education must be transformed into a politically conscious effort to mobilize the working class in a counter-offensive against the capitalist system, which sacrifices all aspects of life, including life itself, for private gain.

The social basis of such a struggle is the international working class.

Only through the development of their own rank-and-file committee, independent of the UAW and fighting to unite with workers across industries and national borders, can Columbia student workers secure these rights. We urge anyone interested in taking up this fight to contact us today.

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