When Columbia switched to online instruction in March, Eduardo Vergara Torres’ computer died. His aging laptop could not handle the bombardment of videoconferencing, and he could not afford to fix or replace it. Normally, this would be a major inconvenience for a Spanish instructor and second-year Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Iberian cultures—but in a world transformed by COVID-19, a broken computer spelled catastrophe.
Since moving to New York from Chile, Vergara Torres and his wife had lived in a University-owned apartment and relied exclusively on Vergara Torres’ stipend from Columbia as their source of income. The pandemic threw Torres’ summer research funding into uncertainty, and paying his rent with a summer stipend alone would be impossible without relief from the University.
With nowhere else to live in the United States, the couple’s only option was to pack their things and move back to Chile, crossing their fingers that they could book a flight before the South American nation closed its borders. They managed to move out and travel internationally, but with Vergara Torres’ computer still broken, leading Zoom classes—on top of everything else—was out of the question.
Vergara Torres was far from the only Columbia graduate student facing precarious conditions in the wake of COVID-19—a March survey by student organizers found that 7 in 10 graduate students in University-owned apartments anticipated that they would have problems paying rent in the next six months. Graduate students called on Columbia to provide rent relief or cancel rent altogether; the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences responded with a universal $1,500 grant to all Ph.D. students on nine-month appointments and an additional $1,500 on an as-needed application basis that will be distributed in July.
But for Vergara Torres and hundreds of other graduate workers, this measure was inadequate. After the universal grant, graduate workers will receive just under $5,400 for the summer from Columbia. University Apartment Housing tenants sharing studios or one-bedrooms with a roommate pay an average of $3,300 in rent back to Columbia over the summer, leaving them with less than $700 per month from their stipend for all other expenses. Tenants like Vergara Torres and his wife pay around $5,250 to rent a couples’ studio for the summer months—for them, rent payments would drain all but $150 of their stipend.
These figures exclude graduate students beyond their fifth year, who do not receive any summer stipends. As for the application-based $1,500 grant, the criteria for who will receive those funds in July remains unclear.
Those advocating for additional institutional support for graduate students formed a new coalition called “Columbia People’s COVID Response.” The group began organizing a labor strike—not only to push its pandemic demands but to confront what it saw as a long-persisting broken relationship between Columbia as an employer and graduate workers as employees and tenants.
On April 25, over 300 Columbia graduate students from over 20 departments stopped teaching classes, leading discussions, and grading assignments. They pledged to withhold their work until Columbia met four demands: a $6,000 summer stipend for every graduate worker, rent cancellation in Columbia-owned housing, a one-year extension on finishing degree programs, and visa protections for international students. Many of the same organizers are also mobilizing to implement a rent strike to benefit tenants of Columbia-owned housing in June.
It was not just the conditions of this pandemic that made these collective actions unprecedented—they also occurred outside the structure of Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, the Columbia graduate worker labor union. On April 23, the union’s bargaining committee had voted 5-3 against initiating a work strike for pandemic-related demands.
The University has released further relief measures for graduate workers in the weeks since the strike began. On May 9, Columbia announced it would freeze rents in its housing through the next academic year, extend housing eligibility for rising eighth-year and graduating Ph.D. students, and disburse summer stipends a month early.
The strike came to an end when striking instructors and teaching assistants universally passed their students by the May grading deadline, but the impacts of this semester’s collective actions will endure. Although graduate students are divided as to whether a work stoppage action was the best means of pressuring administrators, the blows of the pandemic heightened the urgency to redefine their relationship with the University, and all signs point to major strike action in the fall.
Before COVID-19 uprooted Columbia, “to strike or not to strike” was the question dominating the GWC. Months of contract negotiations with the University had reached a stalemate, and the union was ready to escalate—on March 9, GWC’s membership voted 1,833 to 77 to authorize a large-scale work stoppage.
Little did anybody know that March 9 would be one of the final days of normalcy before the pandemic. Instead of gathering on picket lines over the weeks that followed, the graduate student population was dispersed across the planet, and many suddenly found themselves without secure income or housing for the summer months.
When Columbia announced on April 3 that it would be unable to provide rent relief to tenants, the graduate workers and their allies appealed for more support with petitions, letters from department heads, and phone call campaigns to the provost’s office. As the weeks wore on, their efforts did not seem to be pushing Columbia to change its policies—the status of rent and summer funding remained unchanged. With the strike authorization fresh in the minds of union members, many pushed for the strike to continue as planned. The bargaining committee held a new vote on a very different kind of strike—one taking place under a universal pass/fail grading system, Zoom class sessions, and without a physical picket.
Proponents of the strike argued that despite the unprecedented conditions, a work stoppage was the only adequate option at their disposal to leverage the University to meet their newly-exacerbated needs. They also saw striking as a necessary act of solidarity with graduate workers like Vergara, whose circumstances in the aftermath of the pandemic made them unable to work even if they wanted to.
“There were a number of people who had been put in such a desperate situation that they had to go on strike, not simply out of the principle of believing that escalation was the only way that they would be heard, but because they had no other recourse,” Sayantani Mukherjee, a history Ph.D. student and strike organizer, says. “They were simply unable to pay rent. It seemed to me that if people had been put in that situation already, then it was simply imperative for the rest of the unit to support them.”
However, not everyone shared this confidence in the strategic efficacy of striking. At Zoom-hosted meetings for GWC’s organizing committee and general body, many members of the union worried that a strike conducted during a pandemic in the final weeks of the semester would do more to put vulnerable members at risk than effectively meet their demands.
“There’s no grading, and our discussion sections are either over or in a diminished state. We’re not fully performing our labor as we’ve been doing, which means removing it is not quite as potent as it had been [in the past],” Joshua Schwartz, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in history who participated in the 2018 labor strike, says.
The majority of the bargaining committee was similarly uncertain about a strike—it voted 5-3 against calling a work stoppage. Instead, GWC would sponsor a “days of action” campaign, organizing phone call and email campaigns to pressure University administrators to suspend rent, extend summer funding, and guarantee healthcare coverage. The graduate workers who were ready to strike were disappointed but would not let the vote stop them—they decided to move ahead with a labor stoppage anyway.
Organizers launched new online campaigns to start a collective action without the direct help of the GWC. Columbia People’s COVID Response launched on Twitter and Facebook to compile resources and direct demands to the University. Strike organizers also created the Twitter account “Columbia Work Strike / Rent Strike” to communicate demands and updates on the labor action while holding conversations and town halls over Zoom.
Without the union’s authorization, some have drawn parallels between this action and the “wildcat” strikes at the University of California campuses this year. However, this action was not a wildcat strike—an unauthorized labor strike made illegal by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act—in the legal sense of the term. As the union has not signed a contract with the University, the strike did not technically violate the NLRA. Strike participants were legally protected from being fired, but the University was within its rights to withhold pay from them.
An email sent to graduate workers from the provost’s office asked them to provide an explanation for any missed classes and stated that striking workers would not be paid. Instructors who did not respond received a follow-up email that the University would assume workers were on strike if they ignored the inquiry. However, no graduate workers who participated in the strike reported that their pay was docked.
The work stoppage was not the only collective action that graduate workers organized separately from the union. Residents of University Apartment Housing, Columbia’s residential entity for its graduate students, faculty, and staff, are organizing a rent strike with the demand that the University cancels all rents for the summer and provide affordable housing in the future.
In a CPCR survey of 304 UAH tenants, 144 responded that they would definitely participate in a rent strike, and 113 said they would “maybe” participate. Tenants less confident about striking have genuine fears about the consequences of withholding their rent; in addition to evictions, UAH reserves the right to withhold course registration, academic transcripts, and diplomas from tenants who fall behind on their rent.
Lexie Cook, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Iberian cultures, is a UAH tenant and lead organizer for the rent strike. She argues that while fears of retaliation from the University are valid, the collective action has strength in numbers. “[Columbia is] less likely to retaliate against 300 or 400 rent strikers than they are against a handful of people who don’t pay their rent because they can’t afford to,” she says.
“You are creating conditions for negotiating with your landlord because you are withholding such a large sum of money from them. You are making retaliation on an individual basis so difficult that they are essentially brought to table because they don’t necessarily have immediate ways to coerce or extract that rent from you.”
The CPCR has served as an infrastructure to organize Columbia’s tenants building by building. As a separate entity from the GWC, the new organization can advocate for robust action without coming into conflict with the labor union, which deems a rent strike outside of its purview. Organizers hope that in a post-pandemic world, tenants’ organizing through the CPCR can provide the structure for a lasting tenants’ union in Columbia-owned apartment housing.
“It didn’t seem to me that the [labor] strike needed to be the biggest destructive action that could cripple Columbia and bring it to its knees by ending all the online classes and things like that. If anything, the real disruptive action is going to be the rent strike,” Mukherjee says.
Regardless of their position on the rent strike or this semester’s labor strike, many GWC members have their eyes on a major labor action this fall. With more time to prepare and more defined leverage, members of the union will have an opportunity to withhold their labor in an effort to achieve long-standing demands over work conditions, the University’s pandemic response, and the cuts to budgets and employment that have already begun in reaction to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Columbia has already announced budget cuts as well as a hiring freeze on academic, research, and administrative workers.
It has yet to be determined whether in-person classes will resume in fall 2020. Even if students do return to Morningside Heights in September, any labor action will undoubtedly look very different from a typical strike—a physical picket line is likely impossible, and organizers will need to rely on online strategies more than face-to-face appeals to their colleagues. Nevertheless, GWC organizers are pushing for the union’s strike authorization vote from March to initiate a strike in the fall.
Susannah Glickman, a fourth-year history Ph.D. candidate and GWC organizer, expects the fall 2020 semester to be defined by battles around austerity as Columbia reels from the economic collapse dealt by the pandemic. She hopes to organize a movement that merges persisting COVID-19-related needs and contract items into a single set of demands for which the GWC will lead a strike in the fall.
Other universities—like Ohio University—warn of cuts to various programs and departments, particularity in humanities; In the form of faculty non-renewals, hiring freezes and budget cuts. Some, like Glickman, worry that this trend will spur austerity measures targeting humanities departments at Columbia.
“We have some of the best programs in a lot of humanities fields that are going to be increasingly important as we reimagine a new world coming out of COVID. No one knows what’s happening and we have this wealth of experts who provide important education,” Glickman says.
For pro-strike organizers, collective actions like rent and labor strikes are crucial instruments for graduate workers to use their leverage to prevent Columbia from offloading the damage of the pandemic onto non-tenured professors, graduate workers, and vulnerable academic departments. Despite their fears of losing job opportunities and diminished working conditions in post-pandemic academia, the actions this semester give organizers like Cook a reason to be hopeful.
“The future of higher education has never been so dire; it’s never looked so bleak. I would say that all of the problems we’re facing are certainly not new—they’re old problems that have become more urgent in the face of crisis,” Cook says.
“But I think that something that has really moved me has been the way that students have risen to this challenge and the commitment that they’ve shown in fighting this fight in the long term, and I think it will be a long fight.”
Enjoy leafing through our 10th issue!
Updated 5/27/2020 6:21 PM EST