By now, all the undergraduates at Columbia know that grad students are going on strike. Strikes are notoriously uncommon in the United States, and for many, this is the first that has ever affected them. Therefore, I understand why some students feel confused and powerless.
I’m here to convince you that you are not powerless. You have two choices: You can see the strike as an irritation outside your control or you can mobilize alongside grad students to make higher education history.
I will tell you a story about a strike across the pond. It is not a how-to manual on student solidarity, but I hope it inspires you.
It was the beginning of March. It had just snowed. People huddled around the fire in a makeshift brazier. Students wrapped in blankets handed out tea and sandwiches.
I was standing in the picket line outside the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. SOAS was one of the 60 universities in the U.K. whose lecturers had voted to go on strike. Universities UK, the representative body of all U.K. universities, proposed to switch to a defined contribution pension scheme to address their deficit, and University and College Union, the lecturers’ union, objected. A defined contribution pension scheme, UCU pointed out, meant future payouts would be at the mercy of the market, which can decrease by as much as £10,000 per year. First, negotiations hit a stalemate. Then, over 14 days, lecturers staged the biggest academic strike in U.K. higher education history.
While studying abroad at SOAS, I have been conducting fieldwork for my thesis on student activism. I have stood in picket lines, slept on tiled floors, and painted a banner under fairy lights in a squat technically owned by the British Museum. Solidarity, I quickly learned, comes in all forms. Some students made food, brewed tea, and donated blankets to picketers. A few courageous students, mostly women of color, formed a hard picket. Across the U.K., students in more than a dozen universities occupied spaces within their schools to pressure administrators to support the UCU. Some were creative: University College London students camped outside the provost’s office and listed the space on Airbnb. Over these few weeks, hundreds of students sacrificed sleep, hot food, running water, upcoming deadlines, and feeling in their toes in the name of solidarity.
“I think I spent more nights in occupations this year than I did in my own flat,” a grassroots student activist told me. It was near midnight, and I was giving her a wobbly manicure. “This is a luxury one though,” she said. “A few of us occupied a construction site a couple weeks back, and we slept in sawdust.” She pulled a face. “It was grim.”
This “luxury” occupation took place at Senate House, the main administrative building for the University of London. When I arrived, students were already camped out in the reception. The students were demanding that management support the UCU lecturers on strike and bring outsourced University of London staff in-house. When I popped back in three days later, the disruptions were even clearer. In addition to taking over an event hall upstairs, students had expanded to the entire basement, where most offices were located. Hundreds of computers and chairs stood empty because management encouraged staff to stay home. A group of security guards nervously wheeled out bins marked as “CONFIDENTIAL.”
The students were confident that occupations are their best tools: Letters and petitions can be brushed aside, but a group of occupiers requires 24/7 security and cannot be easily ignored. Just two months ago, an occupation reshaped a “development” (gentrification) proposal at Elephant and Castle—a neighborhood in London—enabled by University of Arts London. Even though strikes have ended for now, activism has not. From gentrification to outsourcing, students continue to hold their universities accountable. Students in the U.K. know they have a voice, and they will use that voice to fight for lecturers, workers, and communities.
Fellow undergrads, I’m not trying to convince you to camp outside the provost’s office or chant into a megaphone or even to bring coffee to the picket line—I’m trying to tell you that you have power to shape this University. It is hard to believe this when we are bogged down with the stress of finals, our futures, and financial insecurity. In practice, this “power” is not evenly distributed: Work-study students have to go to work, students of color on the picket line will be disproportionately targeted, and low-income students know private universities are not above taking away their financial aid. But never forget that as much as we feel disconnected, disenfranchised, or disillusioned by this campus, it is ours. The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race exists because of those before us; exactly fifty years ago, students prevented the construction of a segregated gym in Morningside Park. Brave students of 24/7 Columbia are sitting in Lerner right this second, fighting for around-the-clock healthcare.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in anthropology. She is studying abroad at SOAS, University of London for her junior spring.
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