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The Columbia Student Worker Strike Is the Largest in the Country Right Now. Here’s Why It’s Happening

3,000 Strikers walked off the job on Nov. 3.

Lila Livingston Nov 16

“The strike is militant and serious but it’s also really joyful and brings the community together in really beautiful ways.”

Columbia University runs on the labor of graduate students. They assist in teaching undergraduate classes and play a key role in research projects across various disciplines. However, Columbia’s grad student workers often struggle to pay the rent and cover basic living expenses despite their employer having a $14.4 billion endowment, among the largest of any university in the nation.

The 3,000 members of Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) are determined to do something about that. On Nov. 3, they went on strike for the second time this year as a part of a longer, multi-year struggle for a fair contract. They are demanding a living wage that accounts for inflation, comprehensive health care including dental and vision, and neutral third-party arbitration to protect against discrimination and harrassment in the workplace. Their picket line is now a ubiquitous site in the middle of the Columbia campus. It has been joined by undergraduate supporters as well. The Indypendent recently spoke with the strikers and their supporters about the struggle and how it is faring.

Lilian Coie is a 6th year PhD student in Columbia’s neuroscience department and a member of CU’s bargaining committee. She told The Indy that there’s a little black book that circulates in the neuroscience department that contains a running list of abusive professors and labs to avoid based on claims of harassment or sexual abuse. 

We really need more protection. We need more than little black books to keep people out of abusive labs… [Neutral third-party arbitration] would incentivise Columbia to stop abuse before it starts, and to remedy abuse before it reaches the level of arbitration … Everybody here is fired up because they see exactly what we are fighting for and exactly how reasonable we are.

Kanav Kathuria is a first year Masters student at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He studies sociomedical sciences with a focus on the social determinants of health. 

First and foremost I’m entering this struggle from a position of support … As a student, it’s become so clear that the language that Columbia deploys around equity, around justice is so contradictory and really they’ve co-opted this social justice rhetoric while in practice they’re exploiting the living shit out of their student workers.

I’ve done a lot of work organizing against prisons and seeing the tactics that Columbia is using by dividing lead TAs and TAs and positioning the burden of the strike as ‘these greedy TAs who want so much money.’

The parallels here are so distinct and so strong. Kanav has seen these same divide and conquer tactics used in prisons by prison wardens.

Becca Roskill is an undergraduate senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) studying computer science and history. She’s currently a teaching assistant (TA) for a course on computational aspects of robotics, but has taught numerous other courses at Columbia since her sophomore year. 

Since my first semester freshman year I’ve heard stories from instructors who have been so formative to my learning experience at Columbia about their working conditions which are making it difficult to arrive in the classroom. You need a very specific background to make it by with the scraps that the university gives you. 

Joanna Lee is a graduate student studying Modern Chinese History in Columbia’s East Asian Language and Culture Department. A former member of the bargaining committee for their union, Joanna sees how the demands have crystallized over time. 

I care about all of our demands but the one really unifying demand is the one for better compensation … What students are paid is not commensurate with what the university charges them for rent and it makes it really difficult for students to weather any emergencies or any emergency bills. 

This semester the strike is militant and serious but it’s also really joyful and brings the community together in really beautiful ways. We want to connect to undergrads and faculty but we also want to connect with the community and the neighborhood and the wider labor movement in the city.

Paul Brown is a first year chemical physics student in Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is the point person for feeding Student Workers of Columbia. 

It has mostly just been fielding donations in solidarity and support from other people and groups. All of the food today was donated, some food was donated by professors in public health, some food was donated by somebody from IWW, they drove up from Staten Island, and some food just came from somebody who does mutual aid in Brooklyn.

I grew up 50 minutes away in New Jersey in a quintessential atomized wealthy white suburban neighborhood where every house was set back from the road and there are tall fences in between every house and everyone is conditioned to be afraid of anyone else and anyone they don’t know, so for me solidarity was still, like, in my liberal education, a word you play in scrabble. But this, having random people that I’ve never known — and will possibly never know again — send food to support has been the coolest part.

Udonne Eke-Okoro is a first year student at Barnard who got involved through the student walkout on October 27th, one week before the strike began. 

That made me really excited to get more involved and just do as much as I could … so I DMed the SWC instagram and they said food distribution was number one  … You can’t strike on an empty stomach. 

Their compensation is our academic life. At the end of the day these are people who are suffering under an oppressive system. It’s hard to ignore it and not feel some tie. We need to be asking, how does what’s happening to them affect our lives? 

Dominic Walker is a fifth-year sociology PhD student and former bargaining committee member. Having been in this fight for years, he understands the difficulty of making ends meet on teaching and research salaries. 

A lot of the issues that people deal with as TAs largely revolve around the fact that they don’t have a stable income but are expected to continue their research during the summer. If you’re like me and your research is actually based in the city, then that’s a big problem. But the solution that many people find is leaving … and that’s presuming that people have another family home that they can go to, which for a number of members is a presumption. 

Any union strike, any union fight is often about dignity first and foremost and respect that your employer is going to treat you as an equal and not someone that is beneath them or below them. We’ve decided that for us, that means working together, fighting together and taking a risk together to go on strike.

Maeve Cunningham is a first year at Barnard. For them, learning under Columbia University’s umbrella presents a sticky ethical situation. 

Given the backdrop of Columbia’s $14.4 billion endowment, they ask, Why aren’t they willing to just compensate their community fairly? There are some undergrads who are striking because they are student workers but regardless people need to show solidarity. If undergraduates showed up and said that this is a movement that we are a part of and Columbia needs to change this … I guarantee that there would be swift movement.

Michaeala Sawyer is an undergraduate student at Columbia who received a letter from Columbia’s administration after hundreds of students walked out in support of the strike on October 27th and migrated from College Walk to President Bollinger’s Freedom of Speech and Press class in Schermerhorn Hall. Like most students, she joined the walkout and rally in President Bollinger’s classroom in support of the strike slated for Nov. 3. 

On the surface level, I know that this is a place of academic learning and academic culture based on the people, but based on the bureaucracy and administration it feels like Columbia can be a very anti-intellectual place because it cares about maintenance of decorum and the status quo. In a lot of ways they’re not [fostering intellectual pursuits]. They’re fostering a business.

Columbia has really been dragging their feet on this for 3 years? That’s not going to work for me. 

This article was previously published under the title “The Columbia Student Worker Strike Is Second Largest in the Country Right Now. Here’s Why It’s Happening.” John Deere workers ratified a new contract and returned to work Nov. 18.

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