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More Than an Economic Strike: Student Workers at Two Columbia Campuses Press Shared Demands

Lila Livingston Dec 6, 2021

All photos by the author.

Read The Columbia’s student workers in their own voices.

The largest strike in the United States is happening right now on Columbia University’s campuses. Three thousand student workers are facing down a private university with a $14.4 billion endowment. Last Wednesday, the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers Local 2110, marched from the Columbia University Medical Campus (CUMC) on 168th and Fort Washington to the 116th street and Broadway Morningside Heights Campus, demonstrating the union’s cross-campus demand for a living wage, vision and dental health insurance coverage and a neutral third-party arbitration process.

A police escort cleared the way down Broadway as student workers joined in a call and response: “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power! What kind of power? Union power!” With fists raised, heads nodding, and phones out capturing footage, pedestrians in Washington Heights and West Harlem joined the student workers, as 200 marchers chanted “Gentrifier: Columbia! Columbia!” through the streets.

The march demonstrated the connection that has been forged between student workers from Columbia University’s Medical Campus and the Morningside Heights Campus, which is unprecedented given the 50-block distance between the two campuses. 

“Right now we have the most involvement we’ve ever had,” said Alex Neff, a second-year Masters of Public Health student at CUMC. “So it’s been really exciting to get out the word on campus and see more TAs going on strike as they learn more about the union, and learn more about the rights the union is fighting for.”

Tatum, another second-year at Mailman School of Public Health, told The Indypendent about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on student organizing and the impact of being reunited after a year of online and distance learning. 

“We had to wait almost a year to meet each other in person, a range of six months to a year, even though we were seeing each other online every day,” she said. “That kind of delayed gratification of seeing our classmates definitely built a lot of solidarity. We already organized last year to raise concerns and to push back against [paying in-person tuition and fees for an online program]. It was unsuccessful, which is why I think a lot of us were disillusioned pretty early on with Mailman and how it meets the demands of its students.”

As union members enter their fifth week on strike, solidarity and clarity on the importance of their demands fortifies them against the physical toll of picketing on campus, the economic toll of pay cuts and the emotional toll of negotiating with the university’s administration and union-busting lawyer Bernie Plum. 

Demanding “real recourse now,” the union is on strike for more than just economic reasons. 

“If you remember anything from the strike, it’s that Columbia wants control and power over cases of discrimination and harrassment,” said Sarmad Akkach. Akkach says he has faced racial discrimination in Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and has chosen not to report his case. 

Students rally in the middle of the Morningside Hieghts campus. Low, the building in the background, is no longer a library and now houses many of the University’s central offices of adminstration.

“I’m not going to report a case of racial discrimination to an instiution that says we will invisigate it internally and our provost will make a decision internally,” Akkach said. “I want a third-party arbitrator. That’s the only way it can be fair. It’s unrealistic to expect any oppressor to broker a fair resolution for someone whose suffered sexual harassment or discrimination.”

Akkach has been involved in open bargaining sessions where Columbia University’s lawyer Bernie Plum has said that neutral third-party arbitration would create an adversarial environment  and that Columbia is a big family where things should be managed internally. 

If Columbia is such a big family, Akkach asks, why are graduate students being paid $17.50 an hour? Why do they have no recourse if they’re discriminated against?

Columbia sent an email to striking student workers, threatening to permanently replace student workers who do not return to work by Dec. 10. 

Masters student workers at Mailman School of Public Health are only allowed to work 20 hours a week, which means that they would not meet the minimum number of work hours to receive a contract with neutral third-party arbitration. Columbia is determined to limit the number of student workers who have access to neutral third-party arbitration, but rank-and file members of the union like Tatum have pointed out that exposure to harassment and discrimination can happen to anyone at any level of employment, under any type of contract. 

“I really really detest the idea that CU thinks that this should only apply to certain student-worker contracts,” Tatum said.  “Anyone looking at this from a reasonable standpoint would find that very questionable and would find that judgement irrational and arbitrary.”

At a CUMC picket line on November 17, Ally Bronson toted her Mailman School of Public Health bag, which had printed on it the school’s centennial anniversary tagline 100 years of building a healthy and just world. She told The Indy, “We’re looking for the just and the health still.”

As the strike continues into its fifth week, the stakes are rising. One day after Wednesday’s march, Columbia sent an email to striking student workers threatening to permanently replace student workers who do not return to work by Dec. 10. 

The union has previously filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB, protesting a wage freeze in retaliation to their rejection of a tentative agreement last spring and a unilateral change to their compensation schedule. In an email to The Indy, SWC wrote that “an important reason we are on strike is to demand an end to these retaliatory practices. As such, we are considered ULP strikers, which prohibits employers from permanently replacing our labor.” 

“It’s all well and good to talk about human rights at an intellectual level, but this is demonstrating what it means for people’s lives,” Alex said. 

As the union stands together in their demands, students from Mailman School of Public Health have pressed administration to take a stand with them. In a Dec. 3 open letter to Dean Linda Fried, 382 MPH students called on her to “urge the university to meet the demands of the SWC promptly, in good faith, and without punitive measures.”

Until Columbia’s administration has the wherewithal to meet the demands of its student workers, 3,000 of them stand together in solidarity, through pay cuts and threats of punitive measures. The final chant by the strikers as they closed out their march from 168th to 116th Street on Wednesday says it all: “One day longer, one day stronger!”

For regular updates from the Student Workers of Columbia, see their Twitter page

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