Graduate workers at Columbia University in New York City are on strike.
Instead of teaching classes, conducting research, and grading papers, teaching and research assistants, members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 (GWC), on Tuesday morning walked off the job.
After the strike began, about 1000 graduate workers gathered on campus for a rally. They carried signs reading, “Bargain Now, “UAW on strike,” “Pro-Union=Anti Sexual Harassment,” and others.
The rally was briefly interrupted by about two dozen construction workers wearing their hard hats and marching toward the rally chanting, “union, union, union. . .”
The show of solidarity, organized by New York City’s building trades unions, surprised the graduate workers, but they quickly responded by cheering their supporters, blowing whistles, and joining the chants.
For that moment, the chant of “union, union, union. . .” created an unlikely bond between the hardhats and the student workers.
The graduate workers blamed the strike on Columbia’s administration, which for 17 months has refused to recognize the results of a union election that the union won 1602 to 623.
“We work hard and are dedicated to the core principles of this University, but we have had enough,” said Olga Brudastova, a teaching assistant at Columbia’s civil engineering and engineering mechanics department. . . “As long as they refuse to respect our legal rights, we will take action to take our power back.”
The organizing effort among Columbia’s teaching and research assistants goes back for years, but a breakthrough happened in the summer of 2016 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate workers at private universities had the right to join a union and bargain collectively.
That ruling led to a December 2016 union vote at Columbia in which 70 percent voted for the union.
Despite the overwhelming support for the union, Columbia’s administration led by President Lee Bollinger refused to recognize the union and challenged the vote.
In December 2017, the NLRB ruled against Columbia’s administration finding that “the Employer has failed to carry its burden,” noting that Columbia’s challenge was based on weak evidence in an election in which the margin of victory was 979 votes.
“In these circumstances, we find no reasonable doubt as to the fairness and validity of the election,” stated the board in its decision.
Despite this rebuke, President Bollinger continued to ignore the union’s demand that the administration begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.
After repeated attempts to make Bollinger follow the law and bargain with the union, last week GWC took a strike vote in which 93 percent voted to authorize a strike if the administration refused to bargain.
After the strike vote, the union sent a letter to Columbia’s administration announcing that union members would strike on April 24 unless the administration agreed to come to the bargaining table.
President Bollinger sent a last minute message to graduate workers warning them, not to go on strike.
However, when the administration failed to respond to the union’s demand by the deadline, the 3000 members of GWC walked off the job.
The union called the strike “a showdown between the Academic 1 percent of deans and administrators and the 99 percent of younger academic workers.”
“We work long hours for Columbia, and most of us take home less than $30,000 a year while securing millions in grants and research funding,” Brudastova said. “We want a union because we want real recourse when faced with sexual harassment or assault, and progress on issues like late pay, dilapidated lab facilities, and benefits.”
While graduate workers struggle to make ends meet, administrators at Columbia like Bollinger, who likes to burnish his credentials as a liberal champion of the poor, are doing much better.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Bollinger’s annual compensation of $4.6 million makes him the highest paid chief executive among his peers at private universities in the US.
The union said that the strike will last until April 30, the last day of classes, unless the administration agrees to come to the bargaining table.
While the strike is scheduled to end in a week, members of the union said that they are ready to take further action if Columbia’s administration continues to flout the law.
“This is only the beginning,” said Ian Bradley-Perrin, a PhD candidate in public health. “If Columbia continues to refuse to bargain with us, they should expect us to strike again. We love our work and our students, but we need the security of a contract to move forward. We won a democratic election that was certified by the federal government, and the law is clear. It’s time for Columbia to come to the table.”
A solidarity fund has been set up to support striking graduate workers.