Grad Center chapter wins arbitration victory
In a major enforcement victory of its collective bargaining agreement, the PSC has secured thousands of dollars in unpaid tuition waivers for dozens of Graduate Center workers in a recent arbitration win.
Ivana Đurovic said she was optimistic that the union would prevail in the case.
As PSC Legal Director Peter Zwiebach told Clarion, under the contract reached in the Fall of 2019, doctoral students employed in a PSC-covered title were to “receive up to four semesters of tuition waiver at the resident in-state rate once they [had] completed 10 semesters of enrollment in a doctoral program.” But Zwiebach explained, “CUNY refused to apply the waiver to anyone who was not in their sixth or seventh year of enrollment. This effectively removed the benefit from many graduate student workers who had completed 10 semesters of enrollment and who were employed by CUNY.”
THE UNION’S CASE
The union grieved what it claimed was a contract violation, and in June, arbitrator Gayle Gavin said, “According to the union, the language of the MOA [memorandum of agreement] clearly provides that up to four additional semesters of graduate employee tuition waivers should have commenced with the start of the Spring 2020 semester for those graduate students who are employed in a job title covered by Article 1 of the parties collective bargaining agreement and who have completed ten semesters in a doctoral program,” and that the contract requires the “Graduate Center to waive tuition at the lowest rate on the Graduate Center tuition schedule for the four additional semesters and the waiver language contemplates that these four semesters will normally, but not always, be for Years 6 and 7 of enrollment.”
LANGUAGE IS CLEAR
The arbitrator’s decision and award continued, “The Union indicated that CUNY has failed to grant tuition waivers to graduate employees who are beyond Year 6 and 7 of enrollment, as well as to graduate employees who have completed more than ten semesters in a doctoral program.”
CUNY argued that the waivers were not part of employment. The arbitrator’s decision said that administration believed that waivers, “like all scholarship opportunities, are discretionary and are associated with student status, progress and evaluation as a student, as opposed to employee status,” and thus “do not constitute ‘wages.’”
Gavin sided with the union saying, “[T]he fact of the matter is that the parties included the Tuition Waiver language in their [MOA]…. “The tuition waiver also provides a type of compensation to those graduate employees who meet the criteria specified under the provision, and employment in a title recognized under Article 1 of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is a primary criterion. Employee compensation is at the very heart of the terms and conditions of employment that parties codify in collective bargaining agreements.”
Gavin’s decision directs CUNY to “provide tuition waivers or provide a monetary payment equal to the Doctor of Philosophy Level 3 Resident rate to those graduate employees who as of the Spring of 2020 semester had completed at least ten semesters of enrollment in a Doctor of Philosophy program and who are employed in a title recognized under Article I of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement but were denied tuition waivers for up to four additional semesters.”
Ivana Đurović, a chapter activist who handled the initial grievance, said she wasn’t surprised that the union prevailed because the PSC’s case was so clear.
“All the evidence we needed was in the language of the contract, and as a theoretical linguist, I was finally in a position to put my science to work,” she told Clarion about beginning the grievance process. “A provision of the new contract states that graduate workers are eligible for the tuition remission ‘up to four additional semesters’ after semester 10. If the intention had been to limit this to only those in years six and seven, the contract would state so, but it doesn’t. It says ‘normally, years six and seven.’”
Ivana Đurović, added that she considered the decision a victory for the entire union, not just the members who will receive a payout.
“This shows how important it is to enforce our collective bargaining agreement, because it can protect us, but only to the extent we are willing to protect the agreement itself,” she said. “This victory means a refund for potentially thousands of dollars. But for all of us, this victory means that the contract language is as powerful as we make it.”