What Columbia Graduate Workers Are Asking For

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What Columbia Graduate Workers Are Asking For

In early November, graduate workers at Columbia University in New York City went on strike in response to the university administration’s continued failure to bargain over the workers’ contract in good faith. Graduate Student Organizing Committee–United Auto Workers (GSOC-UAW, of which I was a member until June 2020) represents over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers. GSOC-UAW has been asking the university to make meaningful concessions in the areas of compensation, health care, child care and parental leave, nondiscrimination, and union security. As the strike enters its eighth week, the union has presented a new package of proposals to a university administration that has repeatedly met the bargaining committee’s efforts with the same, unrevised contract that was voted down by the unit this past April.

Graduate workers at Columbia—who perform essential labor such as teaching, grading, and research—make just above New York City’s minimum wage (around $33,000 annually) if they are fully funded. They often live in housing that is owned by the university and is therefore pegged to their enrollment. The university’s functionally nonexistent policy on family leave and child care means active enrollment must be maintained in order to keep healthcare and housing through pregnancy. Child care subsidies are miniscule. Health benefits are altered by the university at will and inordinately expensive for those with dependents. Columbia is the second-largest real estate owner in New York City. According to its financial report, the university produced a 32.3 percent return on endowment investments for fiscal year 2021.

The university has spilled a lot of ink on the topic of reducing stress for students and faculty during the pandemic, but, as Columbia history professor Elizabeth Blackmar pointed out, they have failed to address the problem in a meaningful way by “settling for a fair contract that acknowledges the cost of living in New York City.” Blackmar, who has held classes on Zoom in acknowledgement of the picket line, describes the situation at Columbia as “exhausting” and says that the “university’s behavior has been unconscionable.” The administration’s failure to compromise means that students’ education has been disrupted by the lack of discussion sections for large seminars and, where graduate workers are the instructors of record (which is often the case for languages and core classes), students have simply not had class. Many students will not receive grades if the strike continues into the next semester. Neither the provost nor the office of the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences replied to requests for comments.

Graduate students at Columbia voted to unionize in 2014. The university declined to voluntarily recognize the union, and when the National Labor Relations Board affirmed that graduate students at private universities were, in fact, workers in 2016, the university filed objections. The administration then refused to actually begin bargaining. Columbia, like any large employer, would prefer that its students, faculty, and the public believe the strike is ongoing as a result of graduate student intransigence and unreasonable demands, but the record shows a university administration that has expended enormous amounts of energy, not to mention money, actively refusing to compromise or even communicate.

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