Opinion | Op-eds

Numbers bring a different perspective to the unionization debate

Since a recent NLRB ruling, unionization has been a popular topic of debate among graduate students—including myself and my colleagues—at Columbia. I’ve been a student here for the past nine years, with three more to go, in pursuit of my undergraduate and two graduate degrees as part of the MD/PhD program. Having effectively grown up at Columbia (I even met my wife here!), the issue of graduate worker unionization is personal. It will affect me, my friends, and my colleagues today, and many Columbia graduate students in the future.

So, I tried to educate myself. I read through the Graduate Workers of Columbia University’s website, the provost’s unionization website, the GWC’s annotated response to the provost’s website, and attended both GWC and Engineering Graduate Student Council town halls. I had several conversations with union organizers and other student representatives at Columbia. I learned little from my efforts, as I mostly encountered one-sided arguments. And, for the record, I found that both sides presented arguments that were tinged with biases that overruled consideration of other relevant facts.

Disillusioned by these conversations, I decided to look at the data myself: something I’ve been trained to do for the past few years. While I present below a narrative that I believe explains the data shown here, I urge you all to try and objectively look at the data first, then read my perspective on it, before finally deciding for yourself how this information aids you in your position for or against unionization. I am not part of the University Senate, any student councils, or the UAW union, and have no conflicts of interest or reason to persuade you to vote one way or another.

Here are a few facts that I was able to uncover about union dues at the UAW Local 2110, the history of graduate student pay and enrollment at Columbia, and Columbia’s rent for graduate student housing.

With respect to the UAW, all graduate workers will be required to pay the full percentage of union dues, regardless of whether or not they “join” the union. The GWC website FAQs state (correctly) that no one can be forced to join the union. They describe an “agency fee” or “fair share” fee that non-members would be required to pay. At town halls, union organizers say that this “fair share” fee will be some portion of union dues. What they fail to mention, however, is that graduate student contracts across the board, including NYU’s contract drawn by UAW—the same UAW working with GWC—require non-members to pay the full percentage of union dues. In our case, this is two percent  of our yearly stipends. In the words of NYU’s graduate FAQs, “Either way, you’ve got to pay.”

Now, 50 percent of union dues will be used at the local level for everyday expenses (including legal representation). Eighteen percent of union dues are allocated to the International Union and are not used at Columbia. Thirty-two percent of dues are allocated to the national strike fund, which is certainly necessary. However, current UAW Local 2110 contracts at Columbia (professional workers) and NYU (graduate students) have “no strike”/“no lockout” clauses written into their four- and six-year contracts. To simplify the legalese: A “no strike” clause generally prevents workers from engaging in strikes or slowdowns, while a “no lockout” clause prevents the University from barring workers from their workplaces.

These precedents suggest that Columbia graduate workers, should they vote to unionize, will only have access to strike fund benefits during contract negotiations. We will not, however, have this access for the duration of the contract (since we won’t be able to strike), even though we will still be paying into the strike fund. According to the UAW Local, a portion (five percent) of the strike fund will be “rebated” to the local and international union for day-to-day expenses, but only if the strike fund is at least $500 million (which it has been, for the past 30 years). To be sure, the UAW does need some overhead. The money is used for organizing at other institutions, strike fund benefits (e.g. food at the picket line, health care benefits during a strike), for political lobbying, and specialized research.

Next, it’s worth examining how Columbia has historically approached student pay and rent. Specifically with respect to these issues, is unionization going to change the approach towards these benefits, and how?

Graphic by Diane Kim

It seems that Columbia has, in fact, historically paid its graduate students a livable wage. The GWC FAQ says that “we are forming a union because we often work under precarious conditions regarding compensation and benefits,” and, among other things, want to ensure a livable wage and adequate benefits. It turns out, however, that the percent increase in Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences nine-month minimum stipends has, for the most part, stayed well above the percent increase in the U.S. inflation rate since 2002 (I’ll get to 2001 in a bit; don’t worry). Stipends competed with a negative inflation rate in 2009, and 2011 was the only year in which stipend rates were actually significantly lower than inflation. While stipend rate increases certainly fluctuate year to year, they are far from precarious, given how comfortably these rates beat inflation. But let’s move on to 2001.

Amanda Frame / Senior Staff Designer

In 2001, NYU’s unionization efforts won a 15 percent stipend increase for its students for the first year of their contract, which prompted Columbia (and other universities) to also dramatically increase stipend rates. This may seem like a big unionization win and is certainly a reason to consider unionization at Columbia now. However, are there consequences to dramatic stipend increases? History may have some answers: In 1998, Columbia implemented the Macagno plan to reduce the number of unfunded students and raise stipends, specifically in the humanities, so students could reliably have 5 years of funding. To account for this, class sizes decreased.

In 2001, stipends were increased by 15 percent as outlined in the Macagno plan. However, Ph.D. student enrollment in GSAS fell by about five percent, a drop much larger than the average change per year (-1 percent). Increasing stipend rates at the expense of class size isn’t a novel concept; other universities (Purdue, Hopkins) are currently restructuring their programs to do the same. I doubt, however, that this specific situation will arise again at Columbia. NYU’s new contract has only a 2.5 percent yearly increase in stipends for their current contract (while Columbia has advertised a three percent yearly increase). NYU’s numbers, post-unionization, are comparable to those at a non-unionized Columbia. To me, this indicates that union pressures are unlikely to result in a huge fluctuation in stipend amounts and therefore class size reductions at Columbia.

Here’s another question: What have Columbia’s policies toward student wages been like independent of union influence? One instance is the Macagno plan discussed above. Another is the Great Recession of 2008; it’s not clearly evident that any unions influenced University policy during the recession years. From 2008 to 2011, inflation-adjusted median incomes in NYC fell by 5.6 percent. Inflation-adjusted GSAS stipend rates increased by 2.7 percent. I, therefore, believe that Columbia may have protected students from the effects of the Great Recession.

Additionally, since many graduate students live in University housing, it is also important to consider union-independent influences toward Columbia graduate housing. This is especially important given that many of us spend more than a third of our stipend toward rent.

Graphic by May Cheng

The data shows that rent-to-income ratios have dramatically increased since 2002 for New Yorkers in our general income range, but have remained relatively constant for graduate students in University housing (approximately 39 percent). For reference, a 47 percent rent-to-income ratio is considered livable for New York City for a single adult household (although, to be clear, there are certainly students at Columbia with spouses and children, for whom these ratios are understandably much lower). Furthermore, after adjusting for inflation, we pay less gross rent per month at Columbia than both the average income-matched New Yorker and the average Manhattanville resident, and have done so since 2002.

While we can certainly argue over what rent-to-income ratios should be at Columbia and in New York, the fact remains that Columbia has provided affordable and convenient housing to its graduate students compared to the average New Yorker since 2002 at the very earliest. Since graduate worker contracts in New York have not included rent control for university housing, it is reasonable to assume that Columbia’s rent control for graduate students has been implemented purely for competitive academic reasons: that is, to attract Ivy League talent.

In my mind, specifically with respect to pay and rent, Columbia has historically treated its graduate students quite well, and should not be used as arguments for unionization here. While we don’t have to be Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, I hope that our student body will continue to collect information regarding other benefits at Columbia and frame this information appropriately as the larger unionization debate continues. This data should be framed within the context of external conditions (for example, the economic conditions of the country) as well as other factors (like graduate student enrollment). This is the only way we can truly understand the decisions made by this University, as well as the potential impacts of unionization.

The author is an MD/PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He received his BS in biomedical engineering at SEAS in 2011. For more information about his sources or methodology, please contact mas2251@columbia.edu.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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