The graduate student union has announced plans to strike indefinitely from all non-dissertation related activities—including grading and teaching core classes—starting Dec. 4, the week before final exams begin.
Union representatives announced the plans to strike at a protest Wednesday afternoon on Low Steps, which included speakers from the graduate student union, the Barnard Contingent Faculty union, and undergraduate student group Student Worker Solidarity.
The decision to strike follows a years-long legal battle with the University, starting with graduate students’ vote to unionize in December 2016. Last April, after the University remained adamant in their decision not to bargain with the union, a weeklong graduate student strike left dozens of core classes and discussion sections without professors or teaching assistants during finals—something that will likely occur this semester as well.
In light of a conservative majority on the National Labor Relations Board since September 2017, the union decided not to go forward with litigation against the University when it announced it would avoid filing an unfair labor practice charge last August, fearing a conservative ruling could erode the rights of graduate students to unionize across the nation. As a result, the union said they have chosen to pursue a path of “relentless disruption.”
A University spokesperson declined to comment on the union’s announcement of the strike.
In a letter delivered to employees of the president’s office during the protest this afternoon, the president of United Auto Workers—the labor union representing Graduate Workers of Columbia—wrote that Columbia administration has until 5 p.m. on Nov. 30 to decide to negotiate with the union. If the University does not respond, the letter’s 132 signed representatives pledged to organize graduate students in their academic departments to abstain from grading work, teaching classes, non dissertation-related research, and responding to student inquiries, according to the letter. However, graduate workers will continue to conduct research that works towards their degrees during the strike.
During the protest, graduate students led numerous chants and spoke to the importance of uniting against late pay, sexual misconduct, and national movements against unions, among other issues. Organizers demonstrated in Milstein Hall and marched to Low steps to announce the delivery of the letter.
“There is a fine line between fear and anger. While fear keeps us isolated and worrying at home, anger brings us out here fighting together. We are angry that this administration pretends that democracy does not matter, that the majority of us can see we want a thing again and again and they can go on not caring,” Tania Bhattacharyya, a doctoral candidate and member of the Bargaining Committee said.
According to union bargaining committee member and fourth-year doctoral candidate Rosalie Ray, the union hopes that recent nationwide successes for graduate student unions will now put added pressure on Columbia’s administration. Since the strike last April, nine private universities including Harvard, Cornell, and Georgetown have begun bargaining negotiations with their unions.
“There are students that we know that are coming to campus and saying ‘Harvard has a grad union and you don’t. Shouldn’t I go to Harvard?’” Ray said. “I expect that [Columbia] will realize that the combination of disruption and losing out on really excellent grad students is not a winnable position.”
Particularly due to the timing of the strike during finals, the strike may disrupt academic operations by leaving classes without graders or professors at a critical point. During the strike last spring, some professors held classes outside in solidarity with the union, and the University pledged to arrange makeup work such that “all instructional objectives are met.”
However, some students expressed concerns that the strike could potentially impact them during an already stressful time in the year.
“If [graduate students] decide to unionize and not show up to class, that can really affect the whole school” Joshua Elias, CC ’20, said. “[My professor being absent] could definitely affect my grade in the class.”
Despite the impact on finals, some undergraduates feel that students should support the strike. Sandra Goldstein Lehnert, CC ’19, a member of International Socialist Organization who spoke at the protest, emphasized that undergraduates should show solidarity for the union protests because of the strong—but not always obvious—links between the two communities. Goldstein Lehnert cited improvement of undergraduate TA working conditions and better sexual misconduct grievance procedures as examples of mutual interests.
“Organized unionized labor is the most powerful means of advancing all kinds of political demands on campus. It’s the only way to improve working conditions,” Goldstein Lehnert said. “They are not going to give those to us, we need to take them. Their union is our union.”