By Jack Hammond
Student workers at Columbia University in New York City have been on strike since November 3. (@jeremychiuu / Student Workers of Columbia / Twitter) (Courtesy: Jacobin)
Editor’s Note: The National Jobs for All Network is committed to living-wage work for all and to strengthening workers’ bargaining rights. We have a particular interest in the current strike of Columbia University Student Workers. NJFAN has a close relationship to the Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment, Social Welfare, and Equity which has played a significant role in furthering our understanding and advocacy of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered the “fundamental” economic right to “a useful and remunerative job.” NJFAN leaders have been chairs of the Columbia Seminar since its founding. In view of its values and commitments, the Columbia Seminar on Full Employment which currently meets via Zoom, has refused to cross a virtual picket line and has canceled its scheduled meetings until the strike is settled. Jack Hammond, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY and an Associate of the Full Employment Seminar, has joined the Columbia student strikers on the picket line and has contributed this article on the strike.
On November 3, 3000 graduate (and some undergraduate) student workers at Columbia University went on strike. When the John Deere strike was settled shortly thereafter, the Columbia strike became the biggest ongoing strike in the country in a season of widespread labor militancy across many sectors.
On December 2 the university administration sent emails to striking students threatening to fire them and hire scabs to replace them if they do not return to work by December 10. Apart from the unlikelihood of finding qualified replacements to teach courses requiring specific academic knowledge, the bargaining committee responded that the threat “is intended to cause panic within our ranks” but that it “shows that our strike is working and the university is desperate to end it.” They charge that the threat is illegal under NLRB rulings which prohibit hiring replacement workers in an unfair-labor-practices strike.
On December 8 the strikers escalated their daily picket line by attempting to close the University, asking people not to cross the picket line and enter the campus. (Your correspondent participated in this picket line.)
Organized in UAW Local 2110, students are demanding pay increases, to a minimum of $45,000 for 12-month appointments and $36,000 for 9-month appointments. They argue that the shortfall in their current pay scale relative to the high cost of living in New York City is much greater than at other major universities. Columbia’s annual tuition of $63,530 is the highest in the Ivy League.
Student workers also demand improvements in health care and childcare subsidies and a neutral arbitration procedure to rule on complaints of harassment. They demand that any loss of pay be restored to students who have lost time due to their own illness, the need to care for family members, or closure of the facilities where they were working due to the COVID pandemic.
Graduate students are in an exceptionally vulnerable position compared to other workers. Their faculty advisors are often their bosses, and if they are working as research assistants, their paid job may also be their dissertation research. A student’s successful completion of a degree may depend on remaining in the advisor’s good graces. In the early days of graduate student unionization, faculty mentors often argued that the relationship was too close to be governed by the rigid rules of a contract. More recently, university administrations have turned to bare-knuckle bargaining tactics and often simply refused to negotiate seriously with their student workers.
The Columbia students first went on strike last spring. The strike was suspended when the union leadership negotiated a settlement with the administration, but it was turned down by a vote of the strikers. When negotiations resumed in the fall, lack of progress towards a settlement led to a new vote in September in which 89 percent of the students voted to resume the strike.
The University has insisted on mediation, but the strikers complain that the University has been unyielding with regard to their demands for improvements in compensation, health insurance, recognition, and neutral arbitration.
This is a season of burgeoning strike actions by graduate students and adjuncts (part-time teachers, many of whom are graduate students) around the country. Settlements have been reached at New York University and, after a brief strike, Harvard. The University of California system has negotiated a contract with 6,000 adjuncts, reaching what has been called the best contract for contingent university workers in the country.
At the City University of New York where I teach, full-time faculty and adjuncts are members of the same bargaining unit and covered by the same contract. We are all members of the Professional Staff Congress (American Federation of Teachers, AFT). Despite inevitable tensions, we believe that this unusual arrangement strengthens both groups.