With the launch of a strike authorization vote earlier this week, undergraduate students are witnessing the revival of the decades-long conversation around graduate workers’ rights at Columbia. However, for members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers bargaining committee, its allies, and the graduate worker population at large, this struggle has not stopped as the GWC-UAW has waited out the “no-strike” period mandated by the 2018 bargaining framework.
Over the past 13 months, GWC-UAW representatives have been actively engaged in bargaining over a series of demands. Session after session, under the fluorescent lights of a Manhattanville conference room, students on the bargaining committee have represented their fellow teaching and research assistants in negotiations with Columbia’s team of professional lawyers. The union’s bargaining committee has made compromises on its original demands in favor of progress towards a mutual agreement; this commitment to “good faith” bargaining was a key aspect of the framework that both parties agreed to in 2018.
Despite these efforts, Columbia’s lawyers seem to have not been so respectful of this pledge. In an act of bad faith, detailed further by Student-Worker Solidarity, the University retracted its approval of a third-party arbitration process for sexual harassment and discrimination recourse. Retracting an agreement poses a threat to the very prospect of mutual compromise that originally compelled the union to surrender its most powerful tool––strike action.
Now, with the “no-strike” clause expiring on April 6 and a strike authorization vote in progress, undergraduate students must reckon with their own vital role in supporting the graduate workers’ fight and reflect on how the labor conditions at Columbia are inextricably linked to students’ learning conditions.
Columbia’s increasing reliance on graduate student labor is reflective of a broader shift towards the corporatization of the University. Full-time, tenure-track faculty positions have been increasingly phased out around the country in favor of more precarious employment, such as undergraduate teaching assistants, research assistants, adjunct faculty, and graduate instructors. These jobs are more difficult to unionize because they tend to be more unpredictable and short-term compared to tenure-track positions. As a result, University administrations can get away with offering lower pay and fewer benefits.
These exploitative labor conditions seem to be symptomatic of the neoliberal university system’s emphasis on profit-making over its commitment to accessible, high-quality education for all students. This profit-oriented approach hurts not only campus workers but also all students directly taught and supported by their labor on a daily basis.
When graduate instructors and TAs struggle to cope with their own precarious living conditions, it is much more difficult for them to do research and teach their students effectively—which may further undermine the quality of undergraduates’ education. If we don’t meet this trend with resistance, a college education—for both undergraduate and graduate students—will increasingly become an opportunity extended only to those who can bear the expense.
That is why we, as undergraduate students, support voting “yes” on the strike authorization vote. The strike weapon is the union’s most effective means of putting pressure on the administration and compelling it to start bargaining in good faith on key demands like healthcare, fair recourse for harassment and discrimination, protections for international students, and stipend increases to cover the cost of rent.
Despite the emphasis on graduate labor, GWC-UAW bargaining will set a precedent for all student workers. Even more importantly, the actions of all student workers will influence the bargaining outcome. It’s a lesser-known fact that membership and voting rights in the union also extend to undergraduate TAs. Undergraduates contribute to the labor necessary for Columbia to function as TAs, research assistants, graders, and non-academic workers; our mass participation would immensely strengthen the movement. Those interested in getting involved can fill out a union card and request a ballot online.
Thinking bigger, a successful strike at Columbia would likely have a galvanizing effect on labor struggles in higher education as a whole. We’ve seen academic workers uniting to fight for better conditions at universities across the country—from the Barnard contingent faculty union to a three-week-long strike among faculty from Wright State University in Ohio to an ongoing months-long wildcat strike by graduate student workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In light of this nationwide struggle to improve conditions for academic workers, the rights won by the GWC-UAW in a successful strike effort would set a precedent across academic institutions—not only for graduate student labor but for the entire precarious workforce on which modern universities have come to depend.
The gains of a successful strike would extend beyond academic workers, as well. Many of the demands that the graduate workers are fighting for--such as better health services, sanctuary campus status, and fair recourse for sexual harassment--could benefit undergraduates as well, by making the administration more receptive to improving these conditions for all students. As students at Columbia, we must recognize that the struggle of graduate workers is our own struggle as well, and only by uniting with the GWC-UAW can we push back against an educational model which, in the interest of profit, harms students, faculty, and workers alike.
Becca Roskill is a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science studying computer science and history, and Emmaline Bennett is a senior in Columbia College studying history and comparative literature. Both are members of the Columbia-Barnard chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Interested in signing YDSA’s petition to support the Graduate Workers of Columbia? You can read the statement and add your own name through this link: bit.ly/GWC-UAW-Solidarity.
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