If you’ve taken a math class at Columbia, chances are you’re familiar with the wall of mailboxes in Mathematics Hall. They serve as conduits, as a communication system between two distinct but mutually dependent parts of the University: the doers and the graders of homework.
Columbia College sophomore Esteban Vanegas Jr. knows the mailboxes, too. He is an undergraduate teaching assistant for Accelerated Multivariable Calculus and has experience working as a teaching assistant for Calculus IV. In his role as a student, Vanegas has submitted plenty of homework assignments. Now, in his role as an instructor, he’s on the other side: He holds the boxes’ keys. Every other week (he rotates grading with another TA), Vanegas collects student assignments and scores them. The materials he picks up are rarely surprising, but one day Vanegas discovered a flyer shoved on top of his problem sets.
“It was a call to unite,” Vanegas remembers. The call had come from the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110, which describes itself as “the union for research and teaching assistants at Columbia University.” Vanegas was impressed by the union’s outreach: “I was like, this is very beautiful. That was such a smart strategy for recruiting.” But Vanegas didn’t sign a union card that day. He simply collected his homework and continued on his way.
At the time, Vanegas didn’t know that he was eligible, as an undergraduate teaching assistant, for membership in the union. The GWC-UAW is often referred to as a union for grad students (the union’s website, for example, is columbiagradunion.org), even though the August 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling that allowed student workers at private universities to unionize explicitly included undergraduates.
Efforts to organize the GWC-UAW began in 2014, after a similar student worker union formed at New York University. Two years later, the NLRB granted student academic workers—graduate and undergraduate students employed in positions such as research or teaching assistantships—at private universities the right to unionize. In early December 2016, undergraduate and graduate student workers at Columbia voted in favor of unionizing. Since that election, undergraduates have been members of the UAW, have participated in elections, and have sat on the bargaining committee. Many undergraduate student workers, however, remain unaware that they can join.
Undergraduates’ relationships with the GWC-UAW are as ambiguous and as varied as their relationships with the University as a whole. Some students, like Vanegas and his colleagues, are directly affected by unionization in their capacities as teaching or research assistants. Others are involved in advocacy as activists and labor organizers. Others express concerns that unionization—or, more specifically, a strike—could detract from their four years here. The vast majority of undergraduates are implicated simply by the extent to which the campaign for a contract between the GWC and the University has permeated campus—they’ve seen protests, or anticipate that their exam schedule could be impacted by a student worker strike.
Olga Brudastova, the union’s spokesperson and a doctorate candidate in the department of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, tells me that she thinks it’s harder for undergraduates to understand themselves as workers on campus. Because they pay tuition, she argues, undergraduates tend to think of themselves as customers, exchanging cash for knowledge. Graduate students, on the other hand, more readily see themselves in a worker role because it is often their labor that pays for their education.
Columbia’s administration disputes the idea that student labor, by graduates and by undergraduates, is comparable to the work of other employees. In an email to the Columbia community on March 1, 2018, Provost John Coatsworth argued that the relationship between students and the University is “incompatible with treating research and teaching assistants as employees.” An earlier email from January 30, 2018 toed the same line: “We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”
That’s not to say that departments across the University are particularly consistent with Coatsworth’s thinking—the “Teaching Assistant Handbook for Undergraduates,” the text that governs student workers like Vanegas in the mathematics department, instructs them to “treat your duties as a TA as you would any opportunity of employment. As an employee of the Mathematics Department and Columbia University, you are expected to uphold the standards, policies, and procedures which come with being a representative of the University.”
Shawnee Traylor is a senior in Columbia College who works in four different campus positions, including as a teaching assistant in the department of earth and environmental engineering. Unlike many other undergraduates, Traylor feels that her primary interactions with Columbia are as an employee rather than as a student. Traylor has been a student worker for years but only discovered that she was eligible to join the GWC during the recent strike authorization vote, when she signed a union card. As a member of the union, however, Traylor is more concerned with standing in solidarity with grad students than she is with promoting her own interests.
Chiara Butler, a senior in Columbia College who currently staffs the chemistry help room, also believes that the union should exist primarily for graduate students. She began thinking about the union during the referendum vote in 2016. Butler knew then that she was eligible to vote—but she was unsure of her role in organizing.
At the time, Butler worked in a research group with graduate students and listened as they discussed their fears about a contract, which extended from lab access and research to faculty relationships and departmental happy hours.
“And so we all sat together and talked about the pros and cons of this union,” Butler recalls. Although initially ambivalent toward the UAW because of those conversations, over time she became increasingly sympathetic.
Vanegas has considered joining the union, but he also sees his situation as distinct from those of graduate students: “I think graduates are a lot more vulnerable to things like pay gap and wage issues than someone like myself who just gets paid a small fee at the end of every two weeks that I use to finance my groceries.”
As we sit in Brownie’s, Vanegas gestures upward, toward Avery Hall, and explains that he’s currently considering staying in Morningside Heights after undergrad. Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is among the architectural graduate programs he’s considering. Vanegas’ observation of the push to unionize sits in the back of his mind as he thinks about life after graduate school. Whether he chooses to stay at Columbia or not, student worker conditions will be one factor in his decision.
Butler, two years older than Vanegas, has already decided not to go to graduate school. She is going to seek an industry job instead. Butler emphasizes her anxiety about how many hours graduate students are expected to work and how little they students are paid. Her impressions were formed partially by watching the union debate play out over the course of her time at Columbia: “Hearing what they have to say … I just kind of realized that it is a raw deal to be a Ph.D. chemistry student.”
Trevor Hull, a current Ph.D. candidate in Columbia’s chemistry department who sits on the GWC’s bargaining committee, testifies to the reality of Butler’s fears. Hull was surprised by how impersonal his relationship with his professors was. “Before I got here, I thought there’d be this incredible amount of mentorship and guidance and now that I’m here the reality feels more like employer/employee. My boss needs some things done and I need to do them and I give them to him and he goes off,” Hull tells me.
Even University President Lee Bollinger, in a 2016 fireside chat, flashed his suffering-through-grad-school bona fides from Columbia Law School. “We also realize that it’s not easy being a graduate student. I’ve lived that life. I know what that feels like, personally,” said the president, “and it can be hard at times.”
Graduate students at Columbia expect to spend long hours in labs and on papers. They knew they’d be required to work in exchange for tuition and stipends. Yet they were surprised by their employers’ lack of organization, by late paychecks, or by relationships with professors and supervisors that were more transactional than enlightening. For the college senior staring down piles of grad school applications, or the first-year who admires her whip-smart TA, the experiences of Columbia student workers across the University are reminders that, in the words of Brudastova, when it comes to life in graduate school, “you will never be prepared.”
Few current UAW members with whom I spoke had started their studies intending to involve themselves in labor advocacy. Undergraduate students are often unpleasantly surprised by the realities of advanced degree programs. Rosalie Ray is a doctorate candidate in GSAPP. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Smith College and her master’s at the University of California, Los Angeles, where the preexisting student worker union benefited her in ways that she took for granted at the time—like the codification of TA duties and clear measures for addressing sexual harassment and violence on campus.
If the GWC succeeds in procuring a contract with the University administration, it seems unlikely that undergraduates who don’t work as teaching or research assistants will be directly impacted—although there may well be other, secondary impacts.
The GWC’s talking point on the matter has been that “graduate working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions.” When I ask what that would look like, how classroom dynamics would change if student workers had a contract, Brudastova tells me that she enjoys teaching now but could do better if she had more secure working conditions, including clearer job expectations, more codified procedures for addressing problems while working, and more reliable pay.
Graduate workers also hope that their contract will be able to effect positive change for the University community writ large. Ray says, “I think anything, any action that involves student workers in the decision making process of a university is likely to improve conditions for students across the board.” She names issues, including 24/7 healthcare and a safer campus culture, that have ramifications beyond graduate students.
Noura Farra, a doctorate student in computer science who has worked as a TA for two undergraduate courses and as a research assistant, has an ongoing interest in promoting women in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering fields. She understands her labor advocacy as part of a larger campaign for social justice. Undue and unjust gendered challenges facing undergraduate and graduate students, Farra argues, are only compounded by financial insecurity and unsafe working conditions. Collective bargaining presents a method for concretely improving the lives of women and other marginalized identities in science.
A background in feminist advocacy also motivates the work of undergraduate activist Inga Manticas, a Columbia College sophomore and a member of Student Worker Solidarity. After graduation, Manticas hopes to continue to pursue labor organization and eventually to attend law school. Manticas is working to create an undergraduate population at Columbia that is both informed about and vocally supportive of workers’ rights on campus. SWS wants to counter what it calls a “divide and conquer” strategy on the part of the administration—an effort to represent undergraduate interests, including lower tuition and higher teaching quality, as opposed to the interests of the union.
To show its open support of of the GWC, SWS has rallied at the inauguration of Barnard President Sian Beilock and protested the speech given by National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation President Mark Mix, hosted by the Columbia University College Republicans. An ongoing internet campaign by SWS shares photographs of undergraduates clutching signs or whiteboards inscribed with messages in support of the union.
SWS hopes to organize more undergraduate workers in the future (student workers in clerical and other non-academic positions aren’t eligible to join the GWC) and looks to the advancement of the GWC as a step in the right direction.
Manticas also speaks to the possibility of on-campus labor activism as civic education for undergraduates. “I’ve sort of crafted my course load to center on global economy and the United States and on the history of social movements,” she explains. “I often feel like I’m able to put what I’m learning into practice and I can bring what I do in SWS back to my academics.”
Ray thinks that her visible activism is another way she can serve as an instructor and a role model. Her work, like that of other organizers in the GWC-UAW, has presented an opportunity for undergraduates to watch political debates and issues of economic justice unfold close to home. This experiential instruction aligns with Columbia’s identity as an activist campus—something Ray wishes the administration could appreciate.
“I would hope that Columbia and folks as well educated in history as Provost Coatsworth would recognize that civic and political engagement is part of the education to be a citizen, and that the more ways in which Columbia students are shown how to stand up for what’s right, the better it would be for the world.”
Have fun leafing through our 11th issue!