Earlier this semester, we wrote both an op-ed about why undergraduates should support the strike authorization vote and a petition in support of the graduate workers, which was signed by 250 students. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. Although the strike authorization vote was a resounding success with 96 percent of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers voting yes to authorize a strike in early March, the strike’s momentum has been severely disrupted by the escalation of a global pandemic that has thrown all of our lives into crisis.
Yet all of the issues that made a strike so necessary in the first place—from inadequate stipends and unreasonable workloads to poor healthcare coverage and unaffordable rent—remain unresolved. In fact, they have been considerably exacerbated by this crisis and by Columbia’s insufficient response.
Amid the initial chaos of the shutdown of Columbia’s campus, academic workers of all kinds were faced with the task of rapidly adapting their teaching to an entirely unprecedented situation. For graduate workers and undergraduate teaching assistants, the transition to online classes has increased their already unreasonable workloads with little or nothing in the way of additional compensation and support from the University.
To make matters worse, the University administration has recently imposed severe budget cuts that have been felt by students who rely on departmental funding to sustain their research. This past month, the Graduate School of Arts and Science has initiated a 25 percent budget reduction and implemented hiring and salary freezes. These cuts will leave many graduate students unable to cover their living costs at a time when many external grants and other sources of funding are being canceled. Those students have nowhere else to turn in the midst of an extremely unstable job market. Picking up additional work is not an option for many, especially those working under student visas.
On top of this financial strain, rent payments are looming on the horizon. Columbia has extended no leniency to tenants of University Apartment Housing through rent suspension or cancellation. Graduating students are faced with expiring leases, while many others are simply unable to cover the high cost of rent due to inadequate stipends. Many of these student-workers will face eviction in a matter of weeks, as upcoming rent payments are due to the University on May 1 and June 1.
With their most basic needs for housing and funding at stake, graduate workers began organizing to challenge the University’s austerity measures. They have put forward a series of Columbia COVID-19 Pandemic Demands in order to address issues that impact all students, faculty, and workers during this crisis. The four central demands are that the University cancel rent for all UAH residents, provide all students with pro-rated remission for tuition, commit no lay-offs, and extend funding to students. Some of the additional demands specific to graduate students include funding extensions, emergency stipend increases, and protections for international students.
The idea of a strike was raised as a means of pressuring Columbia on these urgent demands. However, the current remote learning conditions require different tactics than the union had imagined deploying when strike plans began forming earlier this semester. This is why, even though the union’s bargaining committee has not officially called for strike action, many rank-and-file union members are nonetheless preparing for a combined work stoppage and rent strike. Starting Friday, these TAs and instructors will stop holding online classes, office hours, or recitations and will give everyone a pass on their final grades, while those living in University Apartment Housing will withhold their rent.
By going on strike, graduate workers aim not only to address their own immediate concerns but also to fight for the needs of all students during this pandemic. This action is about standing behind everyone in our community who has been most impacted by the crisis: graduate students facing eviction and a non-existent job market, international students whose lives have been thrown into even more uncertainty by President Donald Trump’s executive order, undergraduates who have to keep up with online classes even as their learning conditions have been severely diminished, non-tenured faculty whose advancement has been stalled by hiring- and salary-freezes, and campus workers risking their health to keep facilities running. Above all, it is about demanding a just response from a university that we, as students and workers, contribute to and have a stake in improving.
Just as this crisis has laid bare many institutional vulnerabilities that warranted backlash even before the pandemic struck, it also offers an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the system in its wake. Right now, it is easy to see what is wrong with Columbia’s profit-oriented model: As departments take massive budget cuts, graduate workers struggle to get by with inadequate stipends and unaffordable rent, and undergraduate and master’s degree students continue to bear the burden of high tuition costs and student debt, the administration seems to be concerned above all with protecting its $11 billion endowment.
This crisis presents us with a choice: We can either let the administration divide us and give in to austerity measures on all fronts, or we can stand together and work towards building a university that serves the interests of all students, TAs, faculty, researchers, and workers in this moment of crisis and beyond.
Becca Roskill is a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Emmaline Bennett is a senior in Columbia College. They are members of Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America. You can read and sign onto their updated statement of support for the graduate workers’ strike here.
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