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In his latest Spectator opinion column, Joseph Siegel, CC ’20, claims that graduate students’ striking “unfairly punishes undergraduates” and that the graduate workers are a “privileged few demanding yet more privilege.” Likewise, he writes that the potential strike is not “worth it for everyone in the long run” and argues that the University shouldn’t “reward” graduate workers’ “[un]acceptable behavior” if they do go on strike.

Siegel is referring to the 93 percent of nearly 2,000 teaching and research assistants who voted in the recent strike authorization election to allow their democratically-elected bargaining committee to set a strike deadline. In other words, if the Columbia administration does not start bargaining by April 24, teaching and research assistants will go on strike. After more than a year of delays followed by an outright refusal to bargain, graduate workers are understandably taking action.

"The price of a strike” cynically seeks to position the interests of undergraduate students and graduate workers in opposition to each other. Though a strike may be disruptive for students in the short term, an improvement in the graduate workers’ working conditions will enhance Columbia classrooms for all of us. The Columbia administration is betraying its commitment to the creation and communication of knowledge by refusing to negotiate a fair contract and thus undermining graduate workers’ potential to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Graduate workers want to teach students, conduct their research, and facilitate academic inquiry on campus. Collective bargaining would provide them with recourse to begin to address pressing workplace issues such as low and late pay, inadequate benefits, a lack of clear workload expectations, alleged sexual harassment and discrimination, and an array of other issues. Columbia’s unwillingness to bargain with the graduate workers’ union demonstrates how little the administration values their vital contributions to our academic success.

Striking is a powerful tool which has been used by workers around the world for hundreds of years to improve their working conditions, hold employers accountable to employee needs, and create real change. If there is a strike, it will not be caused by graduate workers’ selfishness or a mythical desire to “punish” undergraduate students. Rather, it is a direct response to the Columbia administration’s own breach of labor law. Columbia has the power to avoid a strike altogether, to stop breaking the law, and to agree to bargain with the union, but it has yet to do so. By announcing a strike deadline in advance, the union has given Columbia the opportunity to bargain in good faith before a stoppage of work commences.

Another particularly egregious element of Siegel’s column is his attempt to weaponize vaguely progressive terminology to make a right-wing argument. Designating graduate workers “privileged” is a way to obscure the real power dynamics at play, in which the administration is able to leverage its tremendous financial and social capital to deny its employees fundamental collective bargaining rights. In the context of a workplace, the people who hold the most “privilege” (read: power) are those who set the hours, dispense the wages, and reap the profits of the workers—that is, the bosses.

While graduate workers are not engaged in “manual labor nor even a nine-to-five cubicle job” and some workers are more impacted by systems of oppression and exploitation than others, that does not delegitimize labor struggles in all workplaces. Regardless of profession, all workers deserve rights on the job, including the right to strike.

In addition to working as teaching and research assistants, graduate workers are also completing masters degrees and Ph.D.s at Columbia. Siegel laments that he is here “in order to learn,” but seems to forget that graduate workers are here to do the same. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “[Graduate] student workers who receive adequate pay for their employment are less likely to take on additional outside employment to make ends meet—employment that could interfere with their ability to focus on completing their degrees.”

Siegel is correct that this strike “should concern all undergraduates.” We should be concerned that the Columbia administration would rather deprive us of our education than provide a safe and equitable workplace for teaching and research assistants. In an ideal world, this strike would not be necessary, but direct action becomes unavoidable when institutions refuse to listen.

Student-Worker Solidarity has been organizing students to fight for economic justice and workers’ rights at Barnard and Columbia since 2012. If you’re interested in getting involved, reach out to studentworkersolidarity@gmail.com and check out their Facebook page.

To respond to this letter to the editor, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

unionization student-worker solidarity graduate student workers strike
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