Fifty years after Columbia’s revolt of 1968, when student activists occupied campus buildings in response to the university’s plans to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park and its ties to the Vietnam War, the school is once again in the throes of a rebellion.
Graduate students at the Ivy League institution voted an overwhelming 93 percent in favor of authorizing a strike should Columbia continue its refusal to recognize their union and to negotiate with its democratically-elected bargaining committee. The administration refused and so, on April 24, graduate students refused to teach.
Students in union t-shirts sweatshirts— Graduate Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers Local 2110 (GWC-UAW) — banged drums and carried signs that referenced the ’68 protests as they formed a picket line in front of the steps of Low Library. They were joined by undergraduate allies, faculty, and administrative staff.
The strike is the culmination of years of campus labor organizing. In December 2016, the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) conducted an election on campus, and 72 percent of graduate workers voted to unionize, despite a vigorous anti-union campaign conducted by the administration and the best efforts of the anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose. After the NLRB certified the vote, Proskauer Rose filed exceptions calling into question the conduct of the election, which delayed the union’s certification until December 2017, when those objections were dismissed in their entirety.
On January 30, Columbia formally refused to bargain with the newly-certified student worker union, citing their “…firm conviction that graduate assistants are not employees, and that the fundamental and essential purposes of graduate education would be ill-served by the intrusion of a third party between student and teacher.”
‘The real reason they will not negotiate is because of an unhealthy power dynamic in academia at large.’
Student organizers assert that despite the Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s stated opposition to the policies of the Trump administration, Columbia’s is waiting for the NLRB to be stacked with Trump appointees, in the hopes that the ruling recognizing graduate students as workers will be reversed.
Trevor Hull, a Ph.D. chemistry student and member of the union’s bargaining committee, said this tactic won’t work. The graduate workers union is here to say.
“Trump won’t help you,” Hull said, addressing Bollinger and the school administration.
The students formed a union because they want to improve their working conditions, Hull explained. In the chemistry lab where he performs research with toxic metals, the school’s office of Environmental Health and Safety, the body responsible for minimizing health risks to researchers, has refused to fund blood poisoning tests for the lab workers.
Another goal of the graduate workers union is a “real recourse” for workplace sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment at Columbia University has been widely documented. Students are left with little recourse in a system where the student-advisor relationship is crucial to one’s academic career, yet receives such little oversight. Professors who sexually harass their students are often quietly dismissed, stripped of their advisorships, but not their tenure. They remain employees of the university. A strong student union could help remedy this chronic imbalance of power.
“I’d like to not see any new stories in the New York Times about professors and sexual harassment”, said Hull. “While many more stories go uncovered.”
Olga Brudastova, a 6th-year civil engineering Ph.D. student who is also a member of the bargaining committee, said establishing a grievance procedure is an important issue for the union. Columbia’s response to the issue of chronic late pay has been inadequate, Brudastova says. Rather than addressing the problem of graduate students receiving their pay sometimes months late, Columbia outsourced a late payment hotline to a third party. Issues like this could be definitively resolved with the help of a strong grad student union, she said.
Several days before the planned strike, the school’s Provost, John Coatsworth, reiterated Columbia’s intention to depend on the judicial system to reach a final decision, and “determine with finality if student teaching and research assistants are employees under federal labor law.” But Brudastova insists that this is yet another excuse.
“If you ask them, they say student workers are not workers,” Brudastova said. “But the real reason they will not negotiate is because of an unhealthy power dynamic in academia at large.”
The strike at Columbia is the latest development in a nationwide flood of educational labor unrest that has included strikes by grade-school teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Graduate workers across the country are increasingly feeling the pinch at schools that are more and more relying on their labor in place of hiring full-time, tenured professors. Student workers at the New School, New York University, the City University of New York and University of Massachusetts at Amherst are already unionized.. On April 20, Harvard graduate employees became the latest graduate workers to unionize.
The strike is planned to continue through the end of classes on April 30. Some faculty are expressing solidarity with the grad students by canceling classes that meet during the picketing hours, or by meeting off campus. In a university-wide email, Provost John Coatsworth said that thousands of students would be affected by a strike. However, a contingency plan has yet to be communicated. As teaching assistant office hours and meetings are canceled, many students wonder if their grades, coursework or graduation plans will be impacted. Columbia has not made any public statement in response to the strike and shows no signs of coming to the bargaining table. The university has threatened to pursue a court injunction against graduate student picket lines according to union representatives.
Photo: Striking graduate student workers at Columbia. Credit: Georgia Kromrei.