Until this morning, I was proud to attend an institution whose leadership valued integrity over surrender, principle over convenience. It was thus with great sadness that I digested the headline “Columbia to bargain with grad student union, ending years-long struggle over union recognition.” That the University’s announcement so closely preceded a threatened strike is no coincidence; our administrators’ values did not suddenly and conveniently shift overnight. Instead, they seem to have yielded to fear of disruption, and elected the painless path of capitulation over the courage of conviction.
Acknowledging the purported “right” of a fraction of graduate students to re-classify their peers as workers, rather than as scholars, validates a rhetorical fabrication with lasting consequences. The raison d’être of unions is to protect workers from exploitation. I am neither a worker, nor am I being exploited. To be sure, labor exploitation is a genuine phenomenon—just not for Columbia’s graduate students. Workers who never had the opportunity to choose their profession, or who cannot opt out of it (i.e., because there is only one employer in town) would be especially at risk. But I find it unlikely that any graduate students were “forced,” by lack of options, into getting a Ph.D. Equally unlikely is the presumption that now, finding themselves here, said students would be unable to leave and find employment. After all, every graduate student already possesses an undergraduate degree.
Thus we are students by choice, not necessity. Of my own free will, I, like many of my fellow graduate students, left my job to continue my education. Nobody pulled wool over my eyes. I harbored no illusions that graduate school would be particularly remunerative, but I do receive a compensation, whose combined value of free classes, free medical care, and stipend exceeds $82,000. Still, I gain something every day that exceeds the value of money. I am thankful to enjoy a privilege––not a right––that few people in human history have ever had. I learn from world-class faculty, and I educate the next generation of citizens. When I teach, labor is not being extracted from me without return; I get something back—I become a better scholar and, dare I say, maybe a better person. Converting my experience at Columbia into the terms of employment and exchange cheapens these relationships.
But perhaps worse is the University’s about-face. If the University had bargained from the beginning, that might have been less morally repugnant than the path it has taken now. But it took a stance, and then keeled over when convenience demanded it. The hostage-takers—and let there be no illusion, the union’s supporters held our undergraduates’ education hostage—won. Especially in today’s America, it is disheartening to see the bullies chalk up another victory.
The author is a Ph.D. student in political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this Letter to the Editor, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.