The University’s long dispute with graduate students over their eligibility to unionize culminated in a strike on Tuesday, along with dozens of canceled or moved classes and a picket line on college walk.
Two weeks ago, graduate student supporters of the union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, after which the bargaining committee chose to conduct a strike for six days unless the University agreed to participate in negotiations. Since graduate students voted to unionize in December 2016, the University has remained opposed to graduate student unionization and is seeking to challenge their right to do so in federal appellate court.
The Graduate Workers of Columbia began its strike only days after graduate students at Harvard voted to unionize. Graduate students at Yale, Boston College, and the University of Chicago are also attempting to unionize, although they recently withdrew their petitions from the National Labor Relations Board, the body that oversees officially recognized unions, in anticipation of a judgement against them by a new Republican majority on the board.
Graduate students began conducting their picket at 10 a.m., alternating between pacing on College Walk and congregating on Low Steps throughout the day, and at one point marching in a circle around the entire campus.
While the union limited its physical picket line to College Walk, it encouraged supporters via social media and faculty email lists to interpret its picket as blocking access to all academic buildings on campus. As a result, dozens of professors moved classes to locations off campus in solidarity with the union.
GWC supporters also gave speeches, and members of other New York City unions joined the picket at several points during the strike. Participants spent the day chanting slogans and listening to speakers criticizing the University administration for refusing to bargain with the union. Speakers accused President Bollinger and the trustees of being out of touch with students and relying on the Trump administration to help them avoid recognizing the union.
Natalie McCann, a graduate student in the departments of art history and archaeology, said that she was striking in order to be recognized by the University as a worker.
“What it means to me is that we are workers but that hasn’t been acknowledged,” McCann said. “It’s below the level of an unpaid internship, we’re basically treated as serfs here in the University in exchange for them waving our tuition. And all we want them to do is just acknowledge that we contribute, [that] we work, and give us humane working conditions.”
In a statement to Spectator, a University spokesperson said that Columbia respects the rights of graduate students to express their views, but reiterated the University’s opposition to the idea that graduate students are employees.
While graduate students picketed, many Core classes with graduate student instructors were canceled, and many classes taught by professors were moved as a show of solidarity for GWC’s picket. Graduate students teach about one-third of all Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization sections.
However, Oscar Hou, CC ’21, a supporter of the strike, said that despite canceled classes, the strike was a minimal disruption to his education.
“For next week, two of my classes were canceled and one of them is entirely optional. It’s pretty good as it’s given me extra time to prepare for finals and finish off my final papers and projects,” Hou said. “The teachers who canceled classes are taking steps outside campus and the strike to make sure we still receive help and are prepared for finals, so overall I don’t feel my education has suffered at all.”
With a one-week notice before a strike began, many students and teachers reported making changes to their syllabi in order to accommodate the impact of a week of missed classes. GWC helped many professors book spaces in local churches for their classes off campus, and many professors held classes in their apartments or Riverside Park.
Diana Rose Newby, a graduate student who teaches two sections of Victorian Poetry, said she tried to be clear with students about why striking to her was important, despite the disruption to her class.
“I’m keenly aware of the stress and expectations weighing on my students throughout the semester and especially in the final week of classes,” Newby said. “The idea of potentially adding to that stress has not given me any pleasure, so I have done my best to be as communicative and transparent as possible since the strike was announced.”
While many individual graduate student instructors described attempts to ease the consequences of their strike on their classes, GWC organizers repeatedly emphasized that the point of the strike was to cause as much disruption as possible to University operations.
Maida Rosenstein, president of United Auto Workers Local 2110, argued that stopping University operations was necessary and would result in better work from graduate students.
“Disruption is unfortunately necessary,” Rosenstein said. “At NYU, people can devote more work to their academic studies because their [economic] anxiety is less.”
Kathy Lau, SEAS ’21, said that although she is supportive of the strike, she worried about its impact on her canceled University Writing class.
“We were supposed to have two more classes, but they’re both canceled and it kind of sucks because we weren’t able to finish the curriculum the way our teacher said she wanted,” Lau said. “A lot of people in the class are worried about how grading will go for [our final paper], which is due next week, and for [the class] overall.”
Given the pre-arranged end date for the strike, the University is likely to maintain its position against bargaining until at least next semester. The administration is currently waiting for its appeal of the National Labor Relations Board to be heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The demonstrations will continue take place between the hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday until Monday, April 30, with Thursday’s picket line being formed at Columbia University Medical Center. Additionally, strike organizers have assigned a specific theme to each following day. Tomorrow’s theme will be “race and immigration,” and will feature speeches by members of GWC’s International Students’ Working Group.