Last week, Joseph Siegel, CC ’20, wrote an op-ed criticizing the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers for exercising their democratic right to strike. Siegel urged undergraduates to oppose the union, claiming that a strike would “unfairly punish” them by disrupting classes, setting precedent for more strikes to occur. Calling the strike-authorization vote a case of “a privileged few demanding yet more privilege,” Siegel accused supporters of the union—which include undergraduate teaching assistants—of being selfish, elitist, enabling, and undemocratic, claims which we, as undergraduate TAs, wholeheartedly reject. Teaching assistants, both graduate and undergraduate, play an integral part in undergraduate education, and their right to unionize should concern all students.
Undergraduate TAs do the day-to-day work of teaching and supporting undergraduate students, whether in small seminars or hundred-person lectures. We run recitation and discussion sections, grade and provide valuable feedback on exams, papers, and homework, and hold office hours. However, our ability to do this work has been directly impeded by Columbia’s refusal to guarantee fair working conditions. Late pay is widespread in many departments. We do not receive job evaluations, much less a guarantee of employment from semester to semester, and we have inadequate means to report sexual harassment while at work.
As undergraduate TAs, and in many cases aspiring graduate students, we see ourselves as part of a longer struggle to make higher education more accessible to those who do not come from wealth, or are otherwise marginalized. TAs come from a variety of financial backgrounds, and like a significant amount of the undergraduate student population, many of us are on financial aid. Rather than reinforcing the “privilege” of “one of the most elite groups in the world,” which Siegel incorrectly assumes most academic student workers are a part of, the protections afforded by a union will allow those from less privileged backgrounds to pursue academia.
Moreover, as undergraduate students, we should all concern ourselves with the administration’s response to the GWC-UAW demands, because we face the same dismissive and contemptuous attitude in our own mobilization efforts. When the administration turns a blind eye to the graduate workers’ demands for accountability in cases of sexual misconduct, it becomes equally easy for them to ignore the petitions of undergraduate student organizations that demand 24/7 access to a rape crisis center. When Columbia refuses to sit down and bargain for better working conditions with its graduate students and receives no pushback from the community, it knows it can just as easily neglect the needs of the collectives of students that demand better mental health resources on campus. As undergraduate TAs, we see that the needs of graduate workers and undergraduate students are not at odds. On the contrary, the GWC-UAW has remained a firm advocate of student rights, from supporting undergraduate organizations like Student-Worker Solidarity and No Red Tape, to giving a platform to undocumented and marginalized students.
We, as undergraduate TAs, remind Siegel that Columbia’s refusal to recognize the democratic vote of the graduate workers’ union is an illegal decision, one which has many dangerous ramifications. Last December, the federal National Labor Relations Board instructed Columbia to stop its anti-democratic behavior and finally bargain with the union that graduate students voted for. Columbia has chosen instead to confuse the current situation and to delay their decision with frivolous legal technicalities, and waited for the present Republican administration to replace the current NLRB appointees with conservative anti-union ones. In this way, the Columbia administration hopes to be a tool for the Republican anti-union agenda, pushing for the denial of workers’ rights for teaching and researching assistants all over the country. Since many of us will be future graduate workers, we recognize that the significance of this fight goes beyond Morningside Heights and has the power to affect our future academic careers.
To Joseph Siegel, as undergraduate TAs and undergraduate students, we say: You cannot simultaneously claim that in your time here, “graduate students have shown you remarkable knowledge, enthusiasm, dedication, and compassion,” and yet stand against their organized actions to get the University to acknowledge their contributions. Indeed, if you have ever felt honest gratitude for a graduate student, you will not only understand their reasons for striking, but also will actively support them.
You owe it to your University Writing instructor, who strives to give you meaningful feedback for each of your papers, despite the fact that they don’t feel safe due to the prevalence of sexual harassment in their workplace. You owe it to your lab TA, who helps you prepare each of your experiments even while worrying whether they will make enough money to afford food this month. You owe it to your Music Hum and Art Hum instructors, who continue to engage with you every week despite the fact that not having adequate health insurance is causing them unimaginable stress. They are students; so are you. They and we, undergraduate TAs, are workers; soon (if not already) you will be one, too.
Katherine Broekman, CC ’18, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior and works as a teaching assistant in the psychology department. Guillermo Carranza Jordan, CC ’18, is majoring in economics-mathematics and works as a teaching assistant for that department. Zoey Chopra, CC ’18, is majoring in economics-mathematics and biochemistry and works as a teaching assistant for the mathematics, chemistry, and psychology departments. Manuel Fernando Perez, SEAS ’18, is majoring in applied mathematics and works as a teaching assistant for the economics department. Angela Xia, CC ’18, is a student in the American studies and religion departments, and a teaching assistant at the Center for American Studies.
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