College settles on union request to bargain intellectual property policy; talks to continue

By Anna Busalacchi, Managing Editor

Kayla Macedo

Editor’s Note: A source cited in this story, adjunct faculty member Michael Towns, died on Feb. 26, several days after being interviewed for this article. The Chronicle sends its condolences to his family and friends.

When the part-time faculty union, or CFAC, was first made aware of the college’s proposed intellectual property policy in May 2021, the policy had already been drafted and was projected to be sent for Board of Trustees’ approval in October 2021. Board review and approval was ultimately postponed due to concerns expressed by CFAC.

Diana Vallera, president of CFAC and adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, said the college initially violated the union’s contract by refusing to bargain a change in working conditions, as reported by the Chronicle on Nov. 8, 2021. This prompted CFAC to file charges to the National Labor Relations Board in May 2021. 

The NLRB found merits on all charges that CFAC filed and on Feb. 1 this year, the college settled and agreed to bargain with CFAC, further delaying the implementation of the policy.

Per the settlement requirements, the college sent a compliance letter to all employees on Feb. 22 saying, “We will not refuse to meet and bargain in good faith with the Union over any proposed changes in wages, hours and working conditions, including to your intellectual property rights, before adopting and putting such changes into effect.”

The statement also said the college will bargain in good faith over the implementation of any intellectual property rights policy concerning bargaining unit employees.

As reported by the Chronicle, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David sent a collegewide email on June 28, 2021, saying students and employees own the copyright to the work they create, unless the work “involved a meaningful use of college resources” and other provisions outlined.

The language sparked some concern among the Columbia community, including CFAC.

In an email to the Chronicle on March 3, David said, “The college and the union recently settled the union’s charge at the NLRB pertaining to the proposed Intellectual Property policy. … In the settlement the college agreed to continue talks about the policy, and to provide additional information, which it has provided. In light of these talks, the Board has not yet voted to implement the policy.”

When asked about the future of the policy, David said the original policy draft has been “the basis of discussions at the college,” but said she had no additional information to share.

Vallera said the college has sent some dates to meet to begin bargaining, and she predicted this will happen later this semester. Until both parties reach an agreement, the policy will not go into effect.

CFAC had four meetings with the administration over the past year to express their concerns about the policy. Now, Vallera said the union is happy about the recent agreement to bargain.

“This is really important for us as a union because the college keeps acting as if there’s not a representative, not a union,” Vallera said. “I know they would like to make these kind of changes unilaterally, as they try, but this board decision, the settlement, sends a clear message again that they can’t. They can’t. They have to bargain with us.”

Vallera said the union will be looking closely to make sure the college complies.

Michael Towns, former publicity chair for CFAC and adjunct faculty member in the Business and Entrepreneurship Department, said intellectual property is an important concept when it comes to the creative arts.

“Artists earn a living, not just for the one-time effort of a creative work, but often they do a creative work, and they may be paid over decades from that work,” Towns said. “And then for there to be another demand on that creative work by an institution that they may no longer be affiliated with because they left it decades ago, but they’re monetizing that creative work, that just strikes me as both un-American and highly unethical.”

Vallera said she hopes the college recognizes its lack of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the attempted implementation of the policy without including all stakeholders.

“Hopefully, this signals to the college and to the students that the proposal was not done in a way that was at all equitable,” Vallera said. “[The college] didn’t invite the union at the table, which to me signals the lack of DEI commitment.”

Towns agreed.

“The fact that we were able to get some satisfaction from the NLRB tells you that yeah, you don’t have to really stretch to see that this was a bridge too far,” Towns said. “And I think it speaks to the broader issue that the college has, that it really doesn’t get … that unions are a fundamental part of the creative works career experience.”