On Thursday, May 6, over 300 striking graduate students and their supporters rallied at Columbia University, marching through campus with resounding chants and makeshift drums thumping away. The atmosphere was all the more festive with the show of solidarity by other unions, including a diverse contingent, forty strong, of TWU local 241, Columbia’s Facilities Management. Chants and slogans such as “Union Now”, “UAW on strike for recognition”, and “The unions united will never be defeated” were complimented by creative pickets, such as “Philosophy Hall on strike-Derridians make the diffÃ©rence”. Students marched through some of the same areas and building where, only about 35 years ago, the most historic student occupations of the Sixties had taken place.
As of now, the Columbia graduate workers are still on strike. Why are they striking? Their story is similar to the thousands of other grad students who have fought for union recognition in recent years.
The strike began on Monday, April 19th, with 80% of graduate workers authorizing an indefinite strike for the sole goal of union recognition. Specifically, they want the university to drop their appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and recognize the results of a vote for unionization. Organized as the Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU-UAW) and affiliated with UAW Local 2110, they explain their reasons for going on strike:
“Graduate students provide essential services here at Columbia. We work in laboratories, deliver crucial research and administrative assistance to faculty, as well as tutor, grade, and teach in numerous capacities. We work as Teaching Assistants in two thirds of social and natural science courses, and teach more than half of all classes in Columbia’s Core Curriculum. We make undergraduate education and faculty achievement possible.
“Yet despite our substantial contributions to the University, we as individual graduate employees have no say in the decisions that directly affect our working lives at Columbia.
“Consider some common complaints: stipends are meager given the cost of living in New York City; housing remains expensive; healthcare coverage is still inadequate; affordable childcare is all but non-existent; workloads vary widely and working conditions are often substandard. And as undergraduate enrollment swells, and the University acts more like a business than an educational institution, the situation is likely to get worseâ€¦.
“At heart, graduate employee unionization is about making universities more democratic. By joining together, we can have a real say in the decisions that shape our lives”
Two years ago (March 2002), Columbia RAs and TAs had a majority to vote in a union under the supervision of the NLRB. Columbia University announced that they would appeal the victory on the basis that, essentially, graduate workers are not “real” workers.
This is a common excuse used by many university administrations, from Yale to UCLA, that have faced an insurgent union-drive. The basic idea is that graduate students are “apprentices” learning the craft, helping out in exchange for support from the university-not “working” in the sense that we’d normally think of it. In fact, this glossy evasion is an attempt to cover the fact that the labor of graduate students is being exploited to facilitate the corporatization of American universities and cut back on the quality of education.
In addition to their studies, RAs and TAs are often loaded with more than 20 hours a week of paper-grading, mundane research assistance, and tutoring. While university administrations refuse to call this work, the functioning of a university rests on this labor.
Graduate students are made to teach evermore classes, allowing the university to substitute low-paid students for professors. What is particularly unjust about this practice is that it makes the already scant job prospects for graduating students all the more scarce-after all, who would hire a professor to teach a class when they can get a low-paid grad student to do it?
Luckily, there is strong support for the strikers from the university community. In addition to the show of solidarity from other campus workers (such as Facilities Management), over 50 professors signed a letter to university president Lee Bollinger urging him to allow the vote that will grant union recognition to take place. Many undergraduate students have joined the pickets and marches, and many honor the picket lines. On April 16, the Columbia Spectator carried an editorial in support of the strikers that is worth quoting at length:
“The ongoing debate over graduate student unionization is not about higher wages, or better benefits, or whether or not graduate students can simultaneously be students and employees. What the debate is really about is 1,900 teaching and research assistants gaining a voice in a university that has systematically silenced them for years.
“Columbia could not function without its graduate student employees, who work in laboratories, teach Lit Hum, and provide countless other services. They are much more than students getting educational training, as Henry Pinkham, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, has alleged. They are paid by the University for their efforts, and as such, they should be able to negotiate with their employer on an equal footing over issues like health and safety standards, disciplinary policies, equitable salaries and benefits, and housing.
“At this crucial juncture in the process toward unionization, Columbia must stop ignoring the needs of one of its most important constituencies and allow graduate students to form a union. We believe that the Graduate Student Employees United is thoroughly justified in its decision to strike; the University has left them with no other option.
“For more than two years, this has been nothing less than their legal right. In February 2002, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed that Columbia’s teaching and research assistants are legal employees and have the right to form a union. For more than two years, Columbia has done everything in its power to keep its graduate students from claiming their lawful rightsâ€¦
“We regret that it has come to this. Have no doubt: this strike will cause chaos. Research labs will be inoperable, and dozens of classes will have to be cancelled–an unfortunate consequence because undergraduates, who have nothing to do with the dispute, will be hurt.
“But if GSEU had not voted to strike, we fear that the University would simply have continued to ignore the demands of graduate students and deflate them with legal tactics and propaganda. In the long run, that is an even more serious offence than the disorder that will result from this strike.
“Columbia should face the facts: the movement toward graduate student unionization is not going away. Every day that the administration fails to acknowledge GSEU’s legitimacy is an insult to the men and women who make this University work.
There is an old mystique attached to the university and the work that goes on there. This mystique carries with it the idea that academics are not really workers, that they are in a sense above class identity and part of a transcendent elite engaged in a higher intellectual calling. Many academics buy into this out of a desire to fit into this identity. While some scholars at elite universities may find some justification for feeling this way, most others cannot. It is the rule rather than the exception for most new professors to be faced with a huge post-graduation debt, a staggering workload, and little hope of finding anything but low-paid adjunct positions.
Luckily, a new generation of aspiring academics are coming to reject this mystique and understand that they are workers too-academic laborers-facing the same types of cost-cutting attacks as the much of the rest of the American working class. And they are fighting back. In doing so, they will hopefully succeed in not only their immediate goals, but in revitalizing some solidarity and humanity in the universities, helping to reverse the current degeneration of these institutions. And, as Mary Reynolds, the spokeswoman of Yale’s Graduate Student Employees Organization says: “Every victory brings about energy and a sense of possibility to every other campus” (Columbia Spectator, 5/12/04).
Victory to the Columbia University graduate strikers!
(To find out how you can help, visit the strikers’ website at http://www.2110uaw.org/gseu)