It is uplifting to see Student Workers of Columbia signing their SWC-UAW cards this week after voting by a supermajority of 97.6% on January 28th to ratify their 1/7 tentative agreement with Columbia—the union’s first contract with the University. This victory is as hard-won as it gets, after nearly ten weeks on the picket line. SWC’s significant contract wins are worth celebrating in detail. They include retroactive compensation raises of 6% for PhD students, bringing 12-month appointment minimums up to $43.1k for AY21/22 and $44.4k for AY22/23 and 9-month appointment minimums to $32.3k (AY21/22) and $33.3k (AY22/23); pay parity (bringing PhD students’ pay in the School of Social Work and School of Public Health up to the level of pay in other divisions); dental care covering 75% of premiums for PhD students and their dependents; child care subsidy increases of $4,500 per child for AY21/22 and $5,000 per child for AY22/23; and access to neutral arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment.
These victories not only improve the quality of life for Columbia’s student workers but also raise the bar for other universities. The indirect effects of the Columbia strike are already evident in Princeton University’s recent announcement of a very significant (25%) stipend increase that brings fellowship funding for doctoral students up to $40,000 on average. That raise is unquestionably a win for Princeton grad students. Meanwhile, compensation alone (important as it is) does not remedy power imbalances and inadequate labor protections that graduate students, instructors, and researchers face. This of course includes a widespread lack of real recourse in cases of harrassment, as we have also seen just this week in the appalling details of the lawsuit against Harvard for its longstanding indifference to multiple sexual harrassment complaints. These issues are systematic, and they extend to our own campus as well.
As a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, AAUP–Penn strongly supports the principle of workplace democracy in higher education and the rights of all workers to organize and to bargain collectively for fair terms of employment. These rights are protected by federal law and have been upheld by the NLRB in their application to grad workers. The need for such organizing is great particularly for those whose positions make them vulnerable, including student workers, contingent faculty, and contract staff. With all of these concerns immediately in view, we stand in solidarity—as ever—with graduate students’ concerted actions to secure better working conditions, fair pay and benefits, and protection from harassment and disrimination on all university campuses, including here at Penn.