The Library of Columbia University
The Library of Columbia University

Columbia University Student Strike Ends with Tentative Deal

In a contract that still needs to be ratified by union members, the university has agreed to boost student pay and allow for independent arbitration in cases of alleged misconduct and discrimination.

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Catherine Offord

After undergraduate research with spiders at the University of Oxford and graduate research with ants at Princeton University, Catherine left arthropods and academia to become a science writer. She has...

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Jan 10, 2022

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Student workers at Columbia University have agreed to end a 10-week strike after reaching a tentative agreement with the university to address student demands regarding wages, benefits, and arbitration in alleged misconduct and discrimination cases. The contract, a result of years of negotiations, will be put to a vote among the student union’s 3,000 members later this month; if ratified, it will be in place until mid-2025.

“We are thrilled to reach an agreement with Columbia after seven years of building toward this first contract,” PhD student Nadeem Mansour, a union bargaining committee member, says in a statement. “What our members achieved is impressive, but this is only the start. We look forward to building on our strong union culture to ensure the university continues to meet the needs of student workers.”

Students at Columbia University obtained unionization rights for both graduate and undergraduate workers in 2016, after successfully arguing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that they should be treated as university employees. (The NLRB’s determination has come under review since then, but currently still stands.) The union, called the Student Workers of Columbia, has since grown to become one of the largest of its kind in the US.

See “Federal Agency Proposes Rule Against Graduate Student Unions

However, students and the university have struggled to come to an agreement on workers’ rights. A weeks-long strike last year ended in a tentative agreement between the university and student negotiators, but that deal was subsequently rejected in the union-wide ratification vote, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Among the most substantial changes in the new contract are pay increases of 4 percent this academic year, followed by 3 percent increases every remaining year the contract is in place. The agreement also stipulates that minimum pay be equal across academic programs, set at just over $43,000 for a 12-month teaching or research appointment after union dues. Students paid an hourly rate for work as teaching or research assistants will receive a minimum of $21 per hour, with that rate increasing by $0.50 each year until the contract ends.

Additionally, the agreement permits students to seek independent arbitration in cases of alleged misconduct and discrimination after the university has conducted its own investigation. The change, which had been a sticking point in negotiations up until now, Inside Higher Ed reports, would mean that student workers could hire outside lawyers and investigators.

See “Columbia University Graduate Students Go On Strike

“It has been a really, really long road,” PhD student Lilian Coie, a bargaining committee member, tells The New York Times. “Even though the agreement isn’t perfect, we’re very happy with it.”

The university’s provost, Mary Boyce, says in a statement that she is pleased to have reached an agreement. “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,” she says. 

Boyce adds: “I am optimistic that when the new academic term begins on January 18, Columbia will fully return to the normal rhythm of academic life, and to the pursuit of intellectual accomplishment and personal fulfillment that brings each of us to this great University.”