Striking against the Columbia union-busters

May 22, 2018

Fainan Lakha and Davio Cianci report on the one-week strike by the Graduate Workers of Columbia — and look at how it can build toward a more decisive struggle.

GRADUATE WORKERS at Columbia University carried out a weeklong strike at the end of April that sent a strong message to an administration whose liberal rhetoric belies its role as a national leader in denying collective bargaining rights to its grad student employees.

While the university didn’t back down from its refusal to come to the table with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW), who are members of United Auto Workers Local 2110, rank-and-file graduate workers came out of the strike more organized, determined and clear about what it will take to win.

The strike was marked by attempts to build solidarity between the union campaign and other campus struggles.

In the days leading up to the strike, graduate workers participated in a four-day occupation of the student center as part of the 24/7 Columbia campaign led by the anti-sexual violence campus group No Red Tape (NRT) to demand 24/7 access to health care, mental health services, and the campus rape crisis center.

NRT members then participated in the strike and spoke about the importance of the union for the fight against sexual violence on campus.

Striking graduate workers rally at Columbia University
Striking graduate workers rally at Columbia University (GWC-UAW Local 2110 Graduate Workers of Columbia | Facebook)

On each of the five days of the strike, the GWC held teach-ins and picket line discussions around a different political issue facing the campus: Columbia’s hosting white supremacists to speak on campus, lack of support for workers with children, the absence of protections for workers from sexual harassment by their advisors, the legacy of 1968, and the neo-liberalization of the university.

Through all these different discussions, there was one clear message that underlined every moment of the strike: despite repeated claims to the contrary by the Columbia administration, graduate workers are workers and will fight collectively for what they need.

Picket lines bustled with over 1,200 graduate workers and allies, crowding the major entrances to campus. Supportive faculty and undergrads joined the strike as well, both by taking up signs and chants among the picketers and by moving classes offsite. Over 750 undergraduates had their classes relocated to external facilities.

Strikers were also joined by off campus workers, from grad workers from across New York City and as far away as Princeton and Yale, to members of the Communication Workers of America, Transport Workers Union, New York State Nurses Association and more.

Teamsters refused to cross the picket line to make deliveries on campus. Construction workers who are waging a fight against wage theft and poor safety at the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary led a solidarity chant with the GWC.

THE STRIKE took the fight a number of steps forward, but fell short of its main goal of forcing Columbia to recognize the union and agreeing to collectively bargain. There has been important internal debate about what could have been done differently.

On day three of the strike, a petition emerged initiated by several graduate workers in support of an extension of the strike into finals week.

In response, the bargaining committee said that if the signature campaign got over 50 percent of the nearly 1,000 workers who had voted to authorize the strike, then a vote would be held to extend the strike.

The petition gathered a couple hundred signatures, which prompted considerable debate within the union membership, and also raised the question more sharply about whether graduate workers could sustain an extended strike.

Supporters of extending the strike argued that a longer action would put far greater pressure on the university to come to the bargaining table. Opponents pointed to the lack of deeper organization among the rank and file as a reason for why the strike could not viably continue this semester.

The problem facing the strike was that both arguments were correct. Many on the Bargaining Committee and the broader layer of rank-and-file activists knew that an open-ended strike would be necessary to win, but ultimately felt that a closed-ended, more symbolic strike was what was possible.

The problem was that while the high turnout reflected the strong sentiment for authorizing a strike, the lack of prior actions made it less clear how prepared the union would be for a long fight.

From the beginning, the one-week strike was conceived as part of a longer-term struggle leading into the next academic year. Thinking of it in this way limited the potential to assess how to apply maximum pressure on the university right now.

Flowing from this strategy, GWC leaders viewed the strike more as an opportunity for further organizing, rather than a culmination of months of prior actions.

THE STRIKE was the first major action taken by the graduate workers the entire semester. The lack of any previous actions — either smaller department-based protests or larger campus-wide rallies — provided very little opportunity to test the strength of the campaign and to build confidence.

The greater profile and organization that flows from previously organized actions could have helped cohere a larger layer of rank-and-file activists. Given how spread-out and isolated GWC workers are across two large campuses, finding ways for groups of workers to feel their strength is particularly important.

The organizing committee and the union coordinated extensive one-on-one conversations with graduate workers, but didn’t move past conversation until the strike authorization vote. Even during the campaign for that vote, it was not always made entirely clear that a strike authorization would lead directly into a strike.

In terms of undergraduate support, an excellent panel organized by Student Worker Solidarity on the weekend before the strike brought out around 60 people, many of whom spent the following week on the picket line.

But the broader campus population and many campus progressive groups were disconnected from the strike organizing and were mostly unaware of the key issues at stake.

In addition to actions related to workplace issues, an explicitly political approach to building the strike — such as holding large protests like the one GWC called in response to Trump’s travel ban last year — could have done a great deal to create awareness, energy and momentum.

This type of approach could also have allowed for the recent explosion of education strikes — both K-12 teachers from West Virginia to Arizona and university workers like lecturers in the United Kingdom and graduate workers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — to have had a larger impact on graduate workers’ confidence.

DESPITE ALL these limitations, however, the GWC succeeded in making it clear that it can and will go on strike in order to fight for a contract that improves the lives of graduate workers. By making a big splash on campus and getting a fair bit of press coverage, the strike also significantly extended awareness of the grad workers’ struggle, both on and off campus.

Importantly, the strike succeeded in bringing to light Columbia’s hypocrisy in presenting itself as a liberal institution while denying its workers their democratic rights. A nonprofit institution like Columbia, whose growth relies heavily on its reputation, is particularly vulnerable to this exposure.

Even more importantly, the union’s level of organization grew significantly deeper, and a wide layer of people experienced their first sustained struggle through the course of this strike. Many of these people have greater confidence and sense of purpose now, and they are poised to make a major contribution to organizing for any future action taken by the GWC.

In that regard, the signature campaign to extend the strike and the ensuing internal debates have also served to build the confidence and coherence of a layer of the bargaining unit, which can increase the potential for organizing stronger actions moving forward.

One challenge to be addressed in the coming months is incorporating research assistants (RAs), who are largely concentrated in STEM departments and are quite distinct from teaching assistants (TAs) in a number of ways. At present, GWC is planning on taking input from the many RAs involved over the next several months.

Looking forward to the next phase of the campaign in the fall, there is a significant opportunity to expand the scope of this fight.

Clerical workers who are also members of UAW Local 2110 have their contract expiring in January 2019, meaning the next GWC strike could be joined by the large clerical workers unit. This won’t happen automatically, however, and GWC members will have to continue to organize and build coherence among graduate workers to advantage of this opportunity for solidarity and a united fight.

THE FACT that hundreds of graduate workers have the experience of stopping deliveries to the university, getting classes moved off site, and marching collectively around the campuses, voicing their demands, has increased the awareness and confidence of workers and allies alike.

The debates that have emerged — sometimes heated and polarized, other times comradely and productive — have helped raise the important question of what it will take to win. It’s clear that the summer will be an important time to assess and lay the groundwork to hit the ground running in the fall and push back against “Neoliberal U.”

Despite the lack of a clear victory, the strike has had an important impact on campus and in the broader higher education union movement.

Just one day after the strike, Harvard President Drew G. Faust announced plans to bargain collectively with his school’s newly formed graduate student union. This puts the Columbia administration, which has seen itself as fighting on behalf of all private universities’ right to exploit their graduate workers, in a more vulnerable position.

The GWC strike also took place amid the broader movement of education workers in K-12 and universities. In addition to Harvard and the University of Illinois, University of Washington graduate workers struck for one day on May 15 and are building towards a possible end of quarter strike on June 2.

And just five miles south of Columbia in Manhattan, student employees of The New School (SENS-UAW) went on strike on May 8 to secure their first contract.

This was their first strike since May 2017, when 99.6 percent of student workers voted in favor of unionization. For years, The New School — which markets itself as a social justice school — had refused to recognize the union, until, after a costly legal battle, it was legally obligated to by the NLRB.

This year, the administration had stalled once again, this time around contract negotiations. SENS-UAW workers voted 99.4 percent in favor to strike, with the support of over 200 faculty members who signed a solidarity petition. Unfortunately, the strike ended on May 14 without resolution — an outcome favorable to the administration since the union’s bargaining power will be lower during summer negotiations.

Yet while the struggle of SENS-UAW workers continues, one group of workers at The New School scored a recent victory.

The New School cafeteria workers and student allies occupied a cafeteria to keep their jobs. Earlier this year, The New School announced that the cafeteria workers — most of whom are full-time and Black — would be fired, lose their pensions and health insurance, and be replaced with low-wage student labor.

After a week of occupation, the cafeteria workers won, keeping their jobs and benefits, and their union, UNITE HERE Local 100.

Ultimately, the success of the GWC strike will be determined by whether it’s able to help lead the way in the nationwide fight to establish union rights for graduate workers.

Ronnie Almonte contributed to this article.

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