By Fernanda Martinez
A change in how graduate students are paid is the latest point of tension in an ongoing struggle between Columbia University and the union representing graduate students who work there — and it could lead to a strike.
Nearly 90% of the 2,000 members of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW Local 2110) voted in favor of declaring a strike against the university. Among their demands are fair compensation, healthcare, and protections against sexual harassment and discrimination. The union, which was recognized by the university in 2018 after years of pressure and organizing by graduate students, also held a strike that lasted several weeks in the Spring. A contract that the union negotiated with the university was narrowly voted down by union membership earlier this year.
The strike was precipitated by the change in payment schedules, which impacted Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, and Research Fellows in certain schools. Johannah King-Slutzky, a Union spokesperson, told WSR that students “are ready to mobilize unless Columbia makes major concessions.”
Graduate students at Columbia have gotten paid in different ways based on what school they attend. In the past, Columbia paid some of them two-thirds of their yearly stipends at the beginning of the academic year, which helped students cover moving costs, rent deposits, and even help heads of households pay for childcare. The rest of their compensation arrived in semi-monthly installments throughout the semester.
Weeks before the start of the Fall semester, Columbia informed graduate student workers that there would be a change in their payment schedule. According to a document signed by the Vice Presidents of Student Financial Services and Human Resources “this year, the stipend portion of the payment will commence with a lump sum payment of $2,600.”
The memo also notes that the remainder of the stipend will continue to be paid semi-monthly over the fall term, and that “the amount of total support and [financial] compensation will not be affected in any way.”
Graduate student workers, however, say that this reduction in initial payment, which for some represents a difference of up to $8,000 compared to last year, has forced them to go into debt or apply for food stamps. This is especially true for international students and parents, whose cost of living is generally higher.
Cameron, a PhD candidate who asked to withhold his last name citing privacy concerns, told WSR of the challenges faced by his own family. “The scheduling of the pay really affects how much cash we have on hand, and what we are able to do,” he said. With the $2,600 lump sum that the university disbursed around Labor Day, “we could pay September’s rent or we could pay for childcare,” he continued.
Cameron, who also lives in university graduate student housing with his family, estimates that at least two-thirds of his income eventually returns to the university in the form of rent. Citing financial concerns, he reached out to University Housing, and they agreed to accept a one-time late payment for rent.
The initial memo sent out by Columbia explained that the change in schedule “aims to more closely align with how other graduate students receive compensation.” It also encourages students who might be experiencing financial hardship to contact their financial aid office.
To some students who reached out, Columbia offered interest-free loans. Cameron was one of them, and his family received $2,000, all of which he’ll have to pay back by November. “I have to pay back or I can’t register and will get charged late fees. So, money’s tight right now,” he said.
The Student Workers Union sees Columbia’s changes in payroll as retaliation for a two-week strike held last year. “The reason that they gave for standardizing payroll is flimsy,” said King-Slutzky. “It seems like the real reason is because, this way, they can illegally withhold our stipends.” When contacted by WSR, Columbia did not offer a comment on that claim.
The Student Workers Union say they are currently filing a claim of unfair labor practice over the matter, and students expect to go on strike within a month unless Columbia agrees to negotiate.