Columbia student union concedes second round of contract mediation in third week of strike

Earlier this week, the Columbia-United Auto Workers (SWC-UAW) student workers union agreed to move its ongoing bargaining negotiations with Columbia University over their first mediated employment contract. While details remain to be worked out, the SWC-UAW decision is an important step to end the three-week strike of more than 3,000 graduate student-workers for adequate living and working conditions.

Columbia strikers picketing [Credit: WSWS]

Last semester, despite overwhelming grassroots opposition, the union called off the strike in exchange for federal mediation. The result of the mediation was a miserable tentative agreement that was powerfully rejected by the unit.

By re-accepting mediation, a key procedural requirement of the university, the UAW is laying the groundwork for yet another betrayal. Third-party mediation is a tried and tested tactic by unions and employers to push through concession agreements. It provides the union with a cover to accept demands that, in other circumstances, would be rejected out of hand by the grassroots.

The bargaining committee’s promises that mediation will be different this time around must be treated with contempt. The fundamental problem with mediation this spring was not, as the negotiating committee claims, an unfavorable mediator or a bad tactical decision to end the strike before mediation begins. Instead, these “mistakes” were intentional. Columbia University demanded an end to the strike before the finals started, and the union found a way to do it.

SWC-UAW is once again looking for a way to end the strike on Columbia terms. The move towards mediation is playing into the hands of the wealthy, corporatized university administration, which has blocked negotiations and refused to budge until a mediator is found. This undermines the power of the strike to a critical point.

The Columbia walkout is part of a powerful wave of strikes and other jobs actions launched over the past two months. This international phenomenon reflects a growing activism of the working class under conditions of growing social inequality and in the wake of a continuing pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.

The unions, however, thwarted this activism with desperate maneuvers aimed at sabotaging the strike movement. Last week, the International Alliance of Stage Workers, Film Technicians, Artists and Craftsmen (IATSE) announced the adoption of agreements for 60,000 film production workers despite a majority vote against, and the Alliance of Health Care Unions called off a planned strike of 32,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente on the basis of a deal that calls for increases well below inflation and maintains dangerous staff levels.

Specifically, the UAW on Tuesday announced the end of the month-long strike of 10,000 Deere workers. UAW officials intimidated and threatened the strikers, pushing for the adoption of a contract proposal effectively the same one that had already been rejected the previous week.

In the aftermath of the sale, the UAW presents the Deere deal as a huge victory. This lie was directly promoted to striking Columbia student workers on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with a Deere worker aligned with a reformist UAW faction. According to our sources, the discussion covered up the treacherous role of the union and ignored the brewing rebellion against the UAW embodied in the creation of the Deere Strike Rank-and-File Committee, while also presenting a deal that facilitates brutal speed of the production line. like a great victory.

The same type of betrayal is brewing in Columbia, where the union and the university are currently discussing the details of mediation.

SWC-UAW called on mediator Kevin Flanigan to resume negotiations, citing “extensive experience in higher education mediation.” Flanigan is the director of the Office of Conciliation of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He also sits on the board of directors of the Scheinman Institute, which is part of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University.

The ILR was established in 1945 to provide a “common training program” for union and management representatives and, over the decades, has produced a “who’s who” of bureaucrats and executives for the AFL-CIO , US companies and the US Department of Labor. – in addition to collaborating with and being funded by the CIA during the Cold War.

A member of the last semester negotiating committee and the current SWC-UAW negotiating committee openly admitted Spectator from Colombia that “mediation was rubbish last time”, but “we’re going to start over.” The Spectator went on to say that the union “initially expressed its goal of making further progress in negotiations before moving to mediation.”

Instead of making headway and forcing Columbia to give in, however, the bargaining committee was the one to give in at the table.

A recent Spectator article reported that “the union recently decided to remove a provision from its plan that would have provided health care benefits to casual workers working less than 10 hours per week, as well as dependents of undergraduate and graduate students. master’s students… According to university estimates, the CFC’s decision to reduce the number of beneficiaries for health care reduced the cost of the agreement by $ 60 million.

On compensation, the bargaining committee recently made a presentation based on estimated cost of attendance and living expenses on Columbia’s website, concluding that “workers should earn $ 48,595. [before tax] for the year 2021-2022, well above the union’s proposals [$45,000 annually with 3% annual raises]”, While highlighting the” national high in 31 years of year-on-year inflation (6.22%). While arguing for what undoubtedly should be much higher wages for graduate workers living in New York City, the union is also exposing its current demands as wholly inadequate with sub-inflationary increases resulting in salary cuts.

Meanwhile, Columbia, along with the UAW, continues to put financial strain on student-workers. After changing the way it distributes allowances at the start of the semester, the university has started to suspend allowances to striking graduate workers, which students rely on for a living.

In response to this attack, and because the UAW is starving its striking members with a meager weekly strike pay of $ 275, the SWC announced a rent strike for graduate housing workers from Columbia until ” that the university reimburse students for wages lost during the strike. While a rent strike can be an important tool, in the absence of mobilization of broader sections of workers, strikers are urged to put their homes at risk after the moratorium on evictions ends in January.

In another act of aggression, the university called on the NYPD to barricade and intimidate strikers during last Thursday’s picket line, an extremely provocative move given the students’ call for a campus free from police repression.

Behind these movements lies the understanding that the working students of Columbia are in a very strong position precisely because of the larger, emerging working class struggle. To advance the fight in Columbia, the initiative must be removed from the hands of the UAW-aligned union and transferred to the hands of the grassroots. Students must point to the millions of workers in New York City and beyond in a common offensive. We urge hard-working students to join the Grassroots Committee of Educators in New York, which is meeting this Sunday at 2 p.m. EST, to lead this fight.

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