Donate

Columbia Graduate Student Workers Strike Has National Implications

Dashed Arrow Molly Enking / Gothamist



On April 24th, wearing a bright red T-shirt and a straw hat to keep the bright spring sunlight off her face, Kate Jackson marched back and forth in the picket line alongside over a thousand of her peers, leading them in the chant, “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now! If we don’t get it, shut it down!” A sixth year doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, Jackson ran for election to the Columbia Graduate Workers bargaining committee, she says, to put her training as a lawyer to good use.

According the Facebook group “Columbia Grad Crushes,” Jackson is the cutest union leader on the picket line. She also hasn’t been to the dentist in seven years. As a Ph.D. student, she doesn’t have dental care. “It’s a bread and butter thing, but folks need to go to the dentist,” she said. “A union can do that for us.” (Indeed, on Thursday one angry picketer could be heard shouting, “where’s my f*cking dental?”).

Jackson said graduate students like her are joining the union to demand protection against sexual harassment and discrimination, childcare and parental leave, comprehensive healthcare, raises in line with the rising cost of living, and other benefit expansions.

This past week’s strike has been the biggest escalation in over a year and a half of conflict between the graduate workers' union and the Columbia administration, who have refused to bargain with the Graduate Workers of the Columbia [GWC] union. But with President Donald Trump's two new conservative appointees on the National Labor Relations Board, the future of the union is uncertain. What happens at Columbia will have ripple effects at private universities throughout the country like Harvard and the University of Chicago, who have withdrawn their labor board cases, waiting to see what happens at Columbia.

White graduation tents and bleachers have already begun to go up on the Columbia campus. In the coming days, landscapers and other workers will make sure everything is gleaming before it is beset with parents and donors and distinguished graduation speakers.

Finals are also imminent, and hundreds of graduate students have walked out of classrooms and research labs where they work, in a strike timed for peak impact during one of the busiest times of year for the University. For the last week, in rain and in sun, they’ve been picketing at various locations throughout campus, shouting, marching, chanting and even dancing.

In the week between the vote and the actual strike, they made signs, organized speakers, convinced professors to move their classes off campus. Other area union members, including postmen, construction workers and truck delivery drivers, have agreed not to cross the graduate students’ picket line.

“It’s important that we’ve shown, not only here at Columbia but at Boston College, and Harvard and now at Yale, Chicago, all these other schools, that we are not going to stop organizing regardless of the Trump labor relations board,” said Tiffany Yee-Vo, an organizer with United Auto Workers who has worked with graduate unions at Columbia and other schools. “Graduate workers want a union, and they deserve unions.”

It's unclear how significantly the strike has impacted academic life for undergraduate students at Columbia. While some classes were already over, Teaching Assistants participating in the strike weren't holding office hours, and many professors canceled or moved their classes in solidarity. (Some professors held classes in their apartments or Riverside Park.)


Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary, made a surprise visit to the picket line on Monday for about half an hour. Donning a ‘UAW On Strike!’ sign around her neck, Nixon marched and talked with two members of the graduate student union: Jacob Kopas, a political science student, and Rosalie Ray, who studies urban planning.

At the same time, she declared her support for the union on Twitter: “I know that the story of these students and workers is part of a larger story in New York. New York has become the single most unequal state in the country," she wrote. "But one of the most powerful ways to tackle systemic inequality and austerity is through workers joining unions.”

Nixon’s appearance, as well as U.S. Congressman Jerry Nadler's, boosted protesters' morale on their last, rainy day. Organizers hoped it would help a successful strike end with a bang.

In August 2016, after nearly two years of organizing by the Graduate Workers of Columbia (as part of United Auto Workers), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that student assistants at private universities—at Columbia and elsewhere—qualified as workers with the right to form unions under the National Labor Relations Act. In certifying their union, the NLRB also granted the union certain legal rights: like the right to collectively bargain, and the right to strike.

But Trump's election resulted in the appointment of new, anti-union members of the NLRB.

For this reason, five graduate student unions have withdrawn their NLRB appeals, including University of Chicago, Boston College, Yale, Northwestern and University of Pennsylvania. They know they’re not likely to be successful in the current political climate. And, more importantly, none of them want to give the board a chance to reverse the Columbia decision. Nationwide, graduate student appeals to the NLRB have stalled. Those unions are now in limbo, waiting to see how the Columbia case plays out.

(Graduate workers at Columbia believe they have some cause for hope with the NLRB, because one of the board members, Marvin E. Kaplan, has said he’ll recuse himself from any Columbia case, because his wife works for the university. If he bows out, the board vote would likely be a 2-2 tie, keeping the Columbia decision intact. Therefore, the Columbia graduate union has the best chance of upholding their right to unionize.)

Going through the NLRB isn’t the only way. Graduate students at NYU were able to get their administration to voluntarily bargain after threatening and holding extended strikes. That’s the route other graduate worker unions will have to take now, too.

“This is a watershed moment for teachers across the country,” said Barnaby Raine, a fourth year graduate student studying history at Columbia. “Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, have been showing a new spirit of militancy and determination to win decent wages. So across the country, just as teachers have been unionizing, graduate workers who teach and research have been organizing as well.”

043018columbia2.jpg
(Molly Enking / Gothamist)

To understand the strike at Columbia, and why almost 2,000 Ivy league doctorate students voted to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) Union, one has to understand the basics of organized labor and academic work. Unions frequently represent more than one industry, and UAW have a long track record representing members in higher education. The UAW chapter at New York University helped graduate students successfully unionize, the first private university to do so.

In addition to working on their dissertations, Ph.D. students serve as either teaching or research assistants while in school. They are paid a stipend for this work, and to offset living expenses while they pursue their studies. At a large university like Columbia, T.A.s and R.A.s are an essential part of keeping the university running. They teach undergraduate courses. They read and grade papers, design exams, lecture, hold study sessions and office hours, and do the bulk of the grading. They conduct research and apply for grants, which often brings in money for the University.

“This is a common law definition of an employee: are you working for an employer, and are you compensated,” said Dr. Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of Labor and Employment Law at Cornell University.

“Universities like Columbia are alleging that you cannot be a student and an employee at the same time. Columbia is alleging that the grad employees’ work is necessarily part of being a student,” Dr. Lieberwitz added. “But the NLRB said you can be both. You can be a Ph.D. student working on your dissertation, and you can be teaching classes and be paid for it.”

Nevertheless, Columbia University has continually contested the union’s right to exist, pursuing various legal tactics and hiring high-profile law firm Proskauer Rose, which has also worked with Duke and Yale Universities on their own union-busting efforts. The Columbia Administration’s stance is that they’d prefer for this issue to be definitively resolved in federal court, and that they believe a union will undermine the special advisor-advisee relationship between graduate students and their professors, and the university.

“We believe that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not “employees” under the law,” said Caroline Alderman, a spokesperson for Columbia University. “The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on this issue depending on the changing political makeup of the board. We do not understand why the GWC-UAW prefers the pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, non-partisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.”

“I find it personally insulting that the University thinks it has a ‘special relationship’ with us. Sounds kind of dirty actually,” said Jackson.

“It's very paternalistic. It's patronizing. I received a W-2. We're required to go to job training. They ask us to fulfill sexual harassment reporting requirements like they do every other employee in this university. And then to turn around and say, because we learn on the job, that we're special or some kind of apprentice is hypocritical,” she added.

“We’re living in a company town in a lot of ways,” said Jackson. “My rent has gone up by $100 per month, and by the way, Columbia is my landlord.”

Dr. Lieberwitz said that, technically, Columbia is violating labor law by refusing to bargain, and that the Columbia union could bring an unfair labor practice lawsuit against the University. But this would take a lot of time and money—two resources the university has more of than the union. “They’re trying to wait us out,” said Jackson. “They’re hoping all the leaders will age out and graduate and the younger generation won’t be as active. That’s why first year involvement, even though they’re not teaching yet, is so important.”

043018columbia3.jpg
(Molly Enking / Gothamist)

Involvement in the strike overall was much higher than the organizers anticipated, they said—and much higher energy. Even on rainy days, at least 500 people showed up to picket. On Wednesday, they passed out ponchos and beat their drums, dancing in the rain. On Thursday, they circled Low Library in the center of campus, chanting for President Bollinger to resign. On Friday, the “stroller brigade” came through to boost the strike's cute quotient. Graduate student parents pushed their children in strollers along with them as they chanted and held signs.

With such a successful week behind them, some graduate students have started petitioning to extend the strike for another week, into the finals period. The petition currently has 200 signatures; to move forward, union organizers say they’d need a majority of union members on board.

“I’m looking forward to striking for however long it takes to win this battle, because we’re going to win,” said Raine. “We’re not happy that it’s come to this, but we are happy that so many people have come out in support to say, ‘we’re not afraid, we’re not going to be pushed around, and we’re having a hugely successful strike.”

The Union has gained a smattering of high-profile support throughout the week. Life-long American labor organizer Dolores Huerta joined grad students in solidarity on Wednesday.

Perhaps the most surprising visit came from Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, stopped by to offer words of encouragement to the strikers on his way to a speech scheduled at the university. In his speech moments later, President Higgins called on the University to recognize the democratic process of the union. Teamsters and builders unions have turned out on multiple days in solidarity.

“We know that every set of workers on this campus who’ve ever unionized has had to fight for it, and we know that workers around the city stand with us, just as we stand with them, and that’s a great feeling,” said Raines.

For Jackson, the strike has been an overwhelming success. “It’s exhilarating, it’s such a special moment,” she said. “Seeing everyone out there at the same time, you can feel the electric energy, and when those teamsters walked out in solidarity and we all just screamed—you can feel the bigger moment in all of this. It’s the most beautiful day at Columbia I’ve ever had.”

Video by Molly Elking

Featured in News