The scene that unfolded yesterday on the campus of Columbia University has become a familiar one across the country: teachers leaving their jobs to grab protest signs and join a picket line. The five-hour event — which turned into a rally, then a march, before forming back into a picket line that cut through the center of campus — marked the first day of a planned weeklong strike by more than 1,000 of the university’s graduate students, who are seeking recognition as employees with collective bargaining rights.
“The university has been pretty consistent with their opinion that we’re not workers,” said Rosalie Ray, a Ph.D. student in urban planning who is currently a teaching assistant for one urban planning studio and part of the union bargaining committee. She spoke loudly to be heard over chants from the picket line in the background: “When do we want it?” “Now!” “If we don’t get it…” “Shut it down!”
“Shutting it down” isn’t far off from what graduate students are doing at Columbia. The number of graduate students who participated on the first day left hundreds of core classes and recitations without instructors in the last week of classes before finals.
“People you see walking teach the main undergraduate classes,” Ray said. “There are research assistants, and their labs are currently quiet. There are teaching assistants who may have their own sections. All of those things are shut down.”
Some undergrads looked on with curiosity while others passed by, seemingly indifferent — but many will be affected by the strike. Graduate students teach roughly one-third of the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization sections. The union offered a one-week notice before the strike began, and, according to the Columbia Spectator, teachers adjusted their syllabi in advance. The union also assisted professors who didn’t want to cross the picket line in booking space in local churches in order to hold classes off campus.
The current conflict at Columbia ties into a larger, highly political process of unionizing at private universities, something that ebbs and flows with presidential administrations. When Columbia graduate students voted to unionize in August of 2016, most weren’t expecting Donald Trump to take office three months later. His presidency has pitted students against the Columbia administration in an unlikely battle, with students fighting for bargaining rights they won under Obama, and the university pushing for a court battle under Trump.
While the Columbia strike piggybacks on a nationwide movement of education strikes from Kentucky to Jersey City, tension between the school’s graduate students and administration has built over several years. Graduate student instructors first discussed the possibility of unionization back in January of 2014. The students’ goal was to improve their labor conditions — in their roles as both teachers and research assistants — and to also have a stronger say in decisions affecting their work.
After graduate students appealed to Columbia for voluntary recognition of the Graduate Workers of Columbia University, the administration hired Proskauer Rose, an international law firm known for its work in labor law, to fight their petition. (Organizers view the firm as anti-union, as it represented both Yale and Duke on their campaigns to block unionization.)
At the time, the law was on Columbia’s side. After Brown University took its graduate union to court, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 2004 ruling that stated graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and proctors were not employees of the university, reversing an earlier decision they had made in 2000 allowing a graduate union at New York University.
In 2015, the NLRB dismissed several petitions by the Columbia students for the right to unionize. Then, at the end of that year, the board issued an order granting review of the students’ case to consider whether or not to overturn the Brown ruling. In August of 2016, the board overturned its ruling, at which point Columbia graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the United Automobile Workers as GWC-UAW Local 2110. (Ed. Note: The UAW also represents Village Voice staff.)
Decisions from the NLRB change with the presidential tide. NYU established its graduate union under Clinton; the Brown case was ruled on under Bush, then overturned under Obama. Three months after the union vote, Donald Trump was elected president and began remaking the NLRB into an agency more hostile to unions. With Columbia declining to bargain, the university is expected to use a number of legal maneuvers to bring a case before a federal appeals court.
At Tuesday’s strike kickoff, anger with the university overlapped with anger at its president, Lee Bollinger. Though Bollinger once said Donald Trump was a “challenge to the central idea of a university,” some students felt he was banking on the Trump administration to help Columbia dissolve their union.
“Bollinger talks a lot about democracy,” said Noah Rauschkolb, a Ph.D. student in renewable energy. “He doesn’t really value it.”
Noura Farra, an international student in the sixth year of her computer science Ph.D., said the political climate has undoubtedly shaped the urgency of unionization. “We need extra protection for international students, who are often the most vulnerable of the graduate population,” she said. The union’s bargaining proposal includes an expedited grievance procedure if undocumented students are facing dismissal from the country. The proposal also asks Columbia “to declare itself as a sanctuary campus and declare their support for international students affected by the political climate,” Farra added.
Sexual harassment of graduate students from professors at the university — which Ray called “an open secret” — also looms large. Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, a graduate student in Latin American and Iberian cultures who is not teaching her Hispanic Cultures II course this week, said “The university’s mishandling of gender-based misconduct and sexual harassment has been discouraging.” (In a Medium post Allen-Mossman co-signed with a collaboration of Ph.D. students, the authors referenced — but did not name — professors who women are told they “should never be alone in a room” with.) The bargaining proposal, Allen-Mossman said, calls for a neutral, third-party grievance procedure that would better hold sexual harassers and the university accountable for claims of harassment.
Besides the overarching demand for a contract ensuring higher wages, better benefits, clearer work expectations, and more transparent employment policies, some students at the picket line offered more specific concerns. Rauschkolb said the mechanical department, where he studies renewable energy, is known for late pay. “We’re waiting at least six months to get reimbursed” for work and travel, he said. “We want to make sure our contract guarantees we’ll actually get paid on time.”
Ph.D. students also seek better funding for their work. Valerie Stahl, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, said her department doesn’t allow Ph.D. students to teach courses — and therefore uphold their funding — once they’ve been enrolled for five years. “Considering that the median time to a degree in the social sciences nationwide is estimated at eight years, running out of funding after our fifth year is a major concern,” she said.
A Columbia spokesperson sent a statement to the Voice saying that “we have long supported unions and collectively bargain with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of University employees. But we believe that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not ‘employees’ under the law.” The statement continues, “We do not understand why the GWC-UAW prefers the pressure tactics and disruption of a strike to a definitive, non-partisan resolution of that legal question in the federal courts.”
After students voted overwhelmingly to go on strike, the university offered a concession: medical benefits to the dependents of graduate students. (While graduate students currently get medical benefits, the union is fighting for dental insurance as well.) “So they’re willing to give us some of the money as long as we keep organizing,” Ray said. “But it’s the power-shifting stuff that’s the real struggle.”
As the picket line adapted a chant more commonly reserved for Trump — “Hey hey, ho ho, Bollinger has got to go” — Ray promised the union wasn’t going anywhere. Without recognition, she said, they’re prepared to go back on strike next semester. They know the pressure they put on the university to bargain could have greater repercussions. If the university holds out and sends the case to court — and it rules in Columbia’s favor — it will negatively affect the ability of other private university students to unionize under Trump.
“Columbia could decide at any time to recognize us,” Ray said. “But we think it’s likely we’ll be doing this again.”