Five Demonstrators on Why They Joined The Picket Line
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Written by Candy Chan

Photography by Jaime Danies

Diana Mellon, a doctoral student studying art history and an Art Humanities instructor

What are you currently studying?

I’m studying 14th- and 15th-century Italian art and its relationship to health care at the time. Basically, the contention is that how you understand your body and what health and illness means is specific to your time and place. I’m trying to understand how people thought about health and illness and healing in the late medieval Renaissance period and how artworks either represented that or played a role in that process.

What work are you doing for the University?

I’ve been a TA for different classes for two years. This year I’ve been teaching an art history course for the full year—the standard Art Hum class.

Why are you striking today?

I’m striking to show solidarity with other graduate workers who’ve been put in really difficult situations. And especially important to me is feeling like we have strength in numbers to deal with sexual harassment cases as they come up, and feeling like there’s the power to be heard in that kind of arena. I think it’s super important that we have representation when working with the administration.

How have you been talking to your students about the strike?

My students were really supportive and even asked about coming to strike with me, actually. I talked to them last week about the strike and explained our reasons for striking. I love my students—we have a great relationship and they know that I wouldn’t be not teaching this week because of not wanting to spend time with them. I told them that ultimately I really care about teaching and that all the graduate workers here who are involved in teaching would be a lot more effective and happier as teachers if we had these kinds of basic rights covered by a union. I explained to them that it’s a personal choice, too. Some instructors aren’t going to be striking and so I told them why I wanted to.

John Tseh-han Chen, a doctoral student and former teaching assistant in the history department

What work are you specifically doing for the University?

I’ve been a teaching assistant for five semesters during my time [at Columbia], and right now I’m also an editorial assistant for a journal on campus, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Why are you striking today?

I’m striking because if conditions are better for graduate students, it has dividends for the whole University, right? Basically at the root of all of it: Undergrads are paying a lot of money to be taught by world-class professors. Those world-class professors are supported by us. Grad students are indispensable for making the material that’s taught accessible for everyone. So I think, basically, that they have to be compensated in a way that is commensurate with the way that you value that role.

John Finnegan, a student and research assistant at Columbia Law School

What would you be doing right now if the strike weren’t happening?

I skipped out on two of my classes earlier today, my Constitutional Law class and Property class. And I’m going to miss another class today and all of my classes tomorrow as well. It’s the end of the semester so we’re wrapping up everything. In Criminal Law, we’re going over sexual assault law, which I guess is pretty relevant to what the union wants.

Why are you here striking today?

I’m here in solidarity with the union. I come from a unionized family; my dad is in a teacher’s union. I know, basically, that the market graduate students are facing nowadays is really quite grim, and the way that Columbia has responded, to me, is quite at odds with what a supposedly “progressive” university is about and I think we have a duty to call them out and encourage this massive institution to actually pay the workers fairly. And treat them not just as students but as workers who contribute to this university and who deserve a fair wage.

Did you expect to become an activist while at Columbia?

Not really. I don’t know if I consider myself an activist, per se, but I did hope to be engaged with the community and with the broader New York neighborhood and city.

Diego Filiu, a masters student and teaching assistant at the School of International and Public Affairs

Diego Filiu, a masters student and teaching assistant at the School of International and Public Affairs

Why are you striking today?

I’m striking because of all the stories I hear about graduate workers not being paid on time, not being paid enough, and not having any bargaining power. I’m from France. It’s my first time [on strike].

Did you expect to become an activist while at Columbia?

No—I didn’t expect anything like this. But I also didn’t expect the relation towards graduate workers to be so confrontational on the part of the administration. I think [this strike is] a good reaction to Columbia’s policy.

How long are you spending on the picket line this week?

I’ll try to spend two hours a day, for five days. So 10 hours.

How have you been talking to your students about the strike?

I really tried to tell them that I wasn’t against them. That it was for them, and for us because my students are going to be TAs next year—that’s how it works in SIPA. So it’s a common fight and they’ve been very understanding.

Tracy O'Neill, a doctoral student in communications at the Journalism School

If you weren’t on strike right now today, what would you be doing?

I have a number of jobs so normally I go teach at another school in the morning, and then I might come here and work for Todd Gitlin. He’s giving his papers to the library archive and I am organizing the archives to ensure his placement in posterity. This is something like 50 years of archival materials. We’ve been working on organizing his papers for the library. He works as a media sociologist, ironically, on protesting in the 1960s and that sort of thing. So we’re just getting them together, organizing them by date, theme.

I also have another job with the library.

Why are you striking today?

I am striking today because the communications department is the only Ph.D. program that only has three years of funding. All of the other programs have five, which gives you two years to work on your dissertation. Our program has really lagged behind other comparable programs at other universities because people don’t have the resources to be able to complete their dissertations in a timely fashion. We also need a more diverse faculty; we have four members of the faculty and it’s just not a very diverse group.

And I’m striking because we need much better healthcare, because we need better rights for moms. There have been people in the program who have given birth while they were here and it was really difficult for them. Because of things like sexual harassment, we need to have better recourse. I personally know of several people at this school, both within and out [of the communications department] who have been sexually harassed and didn’t feel like their concerns were addressed.