Student workers at Columbia end 10-week strike after reaching a deal

Written By: Ashley Wong © 2022 The New York Times Company The New York Times
New York Published: Jan 08, 2022, 08:48 PM(IST)

Student workers at Columbia end 10-week strike after reaching a deal Photograph:( The New York Times )

Story highlights

With the tentative contract agreement in hand, union representatives said that about one-third of their members had voted on whether to end the strike and that more than 90% of those who voted supported doing so. A formal vote to ratify the contract, which runs for four years, is set for later this month

Student workers at Columbia University in New York gave their tentative blessing Friday to a new contract that raises their wages and improves their health benefits, ending a 10-week strike that disrupted some classes and strained relations with administrators.

Those on both sides of the bargaining said they were pleased that the standoff had ended.

“It has been a really, really long road,” said Lilian Coie, 27, a doctoral student in neurobiology and a member of the bargaining committee for Student Workers of Columbia, which represents about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. “Even though the agreement isn’t perfect, we’re very happy with it.”

With the tentative contract agreement in hand, union representatives said that about one-third of their members had voted on whether to end the strike and that more than 90% of those who voted supported doing so. A formal vote to ratify the contract, which runs for four years, is set for later this month.

In a statement, Mary C. Boyce, Columbia’s provost, said “there is no doubt that this has been a challenging period for the university.”

Still, she added, “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.”

“I am optimistic that when the new academic term begins on Jan. 18, Columbia will fully return to the normal rhythm of academic life,” she said.

The Columbia strike was the latest such action at a prominent U.S. university. Student workers at New York University agreed to a contract after striking in spring 2021. At Harvard University, a three-day strike ended in late October and a second strike was narrowly avoided the following month after a tentative agreement was reached.

Tensions at Columbia ran high at times during the negotiations. In early December, university officials sent an email to student workers saying that those who did not return to work within a few days would not be guaranteed jobs for the spring semester. The workers responded by blocking campus entrances for a day.

Among other things, the tentative contract includes a 6% raise for workers with annual contracts and an increase in hourly wages to $21 from $15. Columbia has also agreed to cover 75% of the cost of student workers’ dental insurance and to create a $300,000 emergency fund that workers can tap for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The fund is scheduled to grow in future years.

The agreement also allows student workers, after the university investigates, to seek third-party arbitration in cases involving allegations of discrimination, harassment or both. That would give workers the opportunity to hire investigators or lawyers not affiliated with Columbia to evaluate complaints.

The recent strike was the second such action by student workers at Columbia. The first, this past spring, ended without a contract and with all of the union’s bargaining committee members stepping down.

“I think there were a lot of people who felt that when we were campaigning for the no vote last spring, we were leading people off a cliff,” Coie said. “But we actually made some really, really big improvements on the last tentative agreement.”

Several city officials applauded the agreement.

“Student workers are the backbone of Columbia University,” Mark Levine, Manhattan borough president, said in a statement. “And I’m relieved the union and the university have finally reached a tentative agreement that fairly compensates students for their teaching, research and operational expertise.”

Over the next three weeks, union leaders will contact as many union members as possible to make sure they understand the agreement’s terms before the ratification vote is held.

“What our members achieved is impressive,” said Nadeem Mansour, 32, a humanities doctoral student and bargaining committee member, “but this is only the start.”

Read in App