For one week in April, graduate workers at Columbia University went on strike.
Teaching assistants left their classrooms; research assistants walked out of their labs. In the uncertain weather of spring, hundreds of workers picketed in front of Columbia’s wrought-iron gates at 116th Street and below the stone dome of the administration’s offices in Low Library. Hundreds of undergraduates attended class off campus because their professors refused to cross the picket line. Some professors cancelled classes entirely. Graduate workers met trucks at five in the morning to stop deliveries to campus. Dolores Huerta made an appearance and addressed the picketers, and Cynthia Nixon walked the picket line with them. The turn-out at the picket line was so consistently strong throughout the week that even a few of the organizers were surprised. And throughout it all the demand to the administration was simple: bargain.
In theory, it should have been an easy demand to accommodate for an institution that prides itself on its progressivism. But for years Columbia’s administration has fought tooth and nail to prevent graduate workers from enjoying the rights all workers in the United States are theoretically entitled to enjoy: the right to bargain collectively, the right to a measure of democracy on the job. Columbia’s refusal to bargain reveals something not only about the ongoing crisis in American higher education, but all institutions of learning in the United States. Today, educators and academic workers from all walks of life, from public schools in West Virginia to the prestigious halls of Harvard University, are demanding that the value of their work be recognized, and a closer look at the Columbia strike will give us a better idea about what it means.
The road to unionization for graduate student employees—primarily teaching assistants and research assistants—has been long. While such workers at public universities have been able to organize for decades, labor law has included a curious carve-out for private schools, exempting teaching assistants and research assistants at private universities from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act. A 2000 decision by the National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton presidency changed that, and in 2002 graduate workers at Columbia voted on the question of unionization. But before tallying could begin, Columbia appealed to a George W. Bush-appointed Labor Board which ultimately ruled that graduate workers had no rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The ballots were never counted. In protest, the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) called several strikes, but ultimately the effort could not defeat the united resistance of Columbia’s trustees and the George W. Bush administration.
But now something has changed. This most recent strike was the culmination of both a new round of graduate worker organizing, an effort that began years after the defeat of GSEU, but also a new time. In 2014, Columbia University graduate workers filed a petition for the recognition of their union with the National Labor Board. They handed in two thousand signed union cards to the board as evidence that a majority of graduate workers wanted to bargain collectively for a contract. In August of 2016, an Obama-appointed National Labor Relations Board issued the Columbia decision, overturning a Bush-era ruling that graduate workers’ rights to unionize were not protected by federal labor law. Columbia compelled all private universities in the United States to engage in good faith bargaining with grad worker unions. Having won in the courts, that December Teaching and Research Assistants at Columbia voted overwhelmingly to elect the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) Local 2110 as their union. The victory was a landslide with 72% voting in favor, a majority of over a thousand votes. Including the card-check campaign of 2014, it was the second time in two years the grad workers had shown majority support in favor of a union.
Since the grads went public in 2014, Columbia’s administration had adopted a strategy of endless delay, doing everything it could in the courts to transmute a fight for workplace democracy into a legal case. Despite two unambiguous demonstrations of majority support for a union, the administration challenged the integrity of the 2016 election. Finally, at the end of 2017, the creaking machinery of the National Labor Relations Board slowly turned over, the gear caught the chain, and the federal government of the United States of America ordered Columbia University to bargain with its graduate workers.
And then things got interesting. Columbia’s administration refused to obey the law. In an email to all Columbia affiliates, the Provost of the university, John Coatsworth, announced that the administration would not come to the table; it would not comply with the National Labor Relations Act. Despite the fact that graduate workers provide essential services to the University, Coatsworth held firm to the patently absurd assertion that they were not workers. The claim requires a great deal of mental calisthenics. When professors or postdocs grade, teach, and perform experiments they are working; when grads do the exact same tasks, they are not. It doesn’t make much sense.
Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2016 was the best thing in a long time to happen to Columbia’s administration. Coatsworth claimed it was necessary that the legal process be “allowed to run its course,” a course that ideally ran straight to a conservative Supreme Court. Trump’s victory benefited Columbia’s administration in other ways, as well. The union could file a claim against the University for its refusal to bargain, or a graduate worker union at another institution could file a petition for recognition, both bringing the question of whether or not graduate workers are indeed workers before the NLRB once more, but this time before a Trump-appointed NLRB. In a remarkable show of cross-union solidarity, graduate worker unions at different schools collectively refused to bring those challenges to court. No new cases would come before the NLRB. Trump-appointees on the labor board would not be able to overturn the Columbia decision.
While a long, drawn-out union campaign almost always works in favor of the employer, four years of constant on-the-ground organizing by the GWC normalized the idea of the union for graduate workers who were originally unsure of what a union was or how it would benefit them. Before the union election of 2016, the University had done all it could to depict grad worker unionization as controversial. It held anti-union town halls and raised bad faith “questions” about the “unknown” effects of unionizing that in fact already had objective answers. It distributed anti-union pamphlets to workers, even sometimes leaving them at their desks and lab benches.
But if there had been much uncertainty following the union election, the fact that administrators were now so visibly relying on the antiunion appointees of a fascist buffoon soon dispelled whatever doubts remained. Along with late pay, an absence of transparent grievance procedures, poor health insurance, a profoundly unresponsive administration, meager protections against sexual harassment and assault, and an imperial megalomania for devouring Harlem, graduate workers could now add to Columbia’s sins to those of a racist, sexist, xenophobic clown and his kleptocratic administration. The fight on campus took on the character of a much larger contest. What began as a struggle for democracy in academic labor became for many a fight for the world that lay beyond the gates at 116th street. If Columbia’s administrators, following the same policies they have for decades, can find common cause with Donald Trump, then clearly they are unworthy stewards of the noble mission of the university to seek truth, produce knowledge, and educate young people.
It is this rebellion against the logic of neoliberal education that connects the Columbia strike to the striking public school workers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona; graduate workers organizing at the New School, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago (among others); and the charter school teachers in Los Angeles who petitioned for recognition of their union just this week.
On their face, demands by academic workers for decent pay and basic protections might appear like mundane bread-and-butter issues. They are not. For decades, one neoliberal regime after another has put the pinch on working people by arguing that their contributions do not produce real value. They used words like “efficiency” and “privatization” and “assessment” to argue that a job in education should not in the final analysis be a good job. They have defunded schools, departments, and faculty lines, and pointed to the resulting chaos as justification for deeper austerity. But something has changed. As the ongoing ferment among marginalized educators shows, the false promises of neoliberalism are beginning to wear thin, and the inextricable value of education and of work are uniting people, even some working people who call themselves Republicans, behind a program of democracy and a more just distribution of resources.
The linchpin of the Columbia administration’s antiunion argument has been that graduate workers are not workers—that they are the beneficiaries, not the producers, of Columbia’s prestige. Coatsworth has depicted graduate worker unionization as shameful, a denigration, in his words, of the “principles essential to the University’s mission of training scholars.”
In striking for the recognition of their labor, however, graduate workers are fighting, through the democratization of their workplace, to protect the quality of the teaching and research they perform on campus . Since at least the 1990s, critics have bemoaned the slow death of higher education in the United States. As more young people go into debt to earn degrees of decreasing worth, academic workers scramble for fewer good jobs and many bad ones. Universities win bigger grants, yet more scientists find themselves in a holding pattern of itinerant postdoctoral fellowships, conducting ground-breaking research for a limited number of years at bargain-basement prices. Humanities departments are squeezed, and even at the most prestigious universities doctoral candidates hustle semester to semester to make ends meet. Columbia’s President, Lee Bollinger, makes four million dollars a year while students take out payday loans to cover rent.
The struggle for a union at Columbia is inseparable from a defense of education, and democracy is a strategy for connecting the working conditions of researchers and educators to the learning conditions of students. And, indeed, although administrators would have graduate workers believe that they are superior to the unionized facilities workers, support staff, security guards, medical technician, and food service workers on campus, the fight for higher education in America is the fight for the dignity of all labor on college campuses.
The University hopes to prevent precisely this kind of unity within it own community. It rightly perceives real democracy as an existential threat to its way of life. The administration’s prevailing strategy to undermine the graduate workers has been to split teaching assistants from research assistants. The night before the graduate workers planned to picket at the uptown medical campus where a large number of research assistants work, Columbia’s lawyers threatened the union with an injunction. Attempting to distract from the action on the street, the administration hoped to snare the union in more legal wrangling. The GWC refused to take the bait, returning to Columbia’s Morningside campus to continue the picket, again in large numbers.
Columbia has a long history of fighting unions on its campus. When in 2014 the graduate workers chose to affiliate with UAW Local 2110—which also represents support staff at Columbia, Barnard contingent faculty, and grad workers at NYU, as well as workers at MoMA—they put themselves in a long tradition of the fight for dignity on the job. As Rudi Batzell and Lindsey Dayton have shown, grad workers today are benefitting from a longstanding struggle. Since the first round of grad organizing at Columbia in the early 2000s, graduate workers have relied on the support and knowledge of the office clerical workers, who in the 1980s won hard-fought recognition of their union. The current president of 2110, Maida Rosenstein, began her career at Columbia as a clerical worker, and Julie Kushner, the president of UAW Region 9A (in which Local 2110 falls) served as an organizer in that early campaign to found a clerical workers union at Barnard and Columbia. Before it affiliated with the UAW, 2110 had been District 65, an independent, communist-led union that in the 1930s and 1940s had organized among low-wage warehouse and retail workers.
When clerical workers organized in the 1980s, Columbia deployed the same anti-union arguments they direct at graduate workers today. In other words, the fight at Columbia for the integrity of education is rooted in the solidarity that exists between graduate workers and other workers across campus, the city, and the country. That solidarity is significant. On the picket, workers from the Communication Workers of America marched, as did Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79, the TWU, CSA, and SEIU, as well as grad workers from Yale, Princeton, NYU, and the New School. The Black Students Organization lent its support, as did the campus Liberation Coalition, UndoCU, and Student Worker Solidarity. The fight around the value of work reaches beyond RAs and TAs; it reaches beyond a job. This fight for the grad workers on Columbia’s campus is intersectional, international, feminist, queer, and solidaristic.
GWC’s week-long strike honored the (much-repressed) memory of the 1968 student protests at Columbia, which similarly imagined the mission of education and research as inseparable from democracy. In May of that year, Columbia and Barnard students themselves went on strike and occupied campus buildings in protest of Columbia’s plan to build a gym under Morningside Park with a separate—segregated—entrance for community members from Harlem, as well as the university’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the strike, the Rare Books and Manuscript Library held a conference on ’68, inviting Provost John Coatsworth, who in the 1960s styled himself a radical, to speak. As he mounted the rostrum, graduate workers, joined by the rest of the audience, rose and sang “Solidarity Forever.” In a ghastly attempt to diffuse the situation, Coatsworth attempted to sing along. Seemingly trying to appease the veteran activists of the 1968 student strike, he admitted with a smile that in the intervening years he had gone over to the “dark side.” A few people began to laugh before a loud, clear voice from the back of the room cut through: “It’s not funny.”
A devastating silence followed. His remarks concluded, Coatsworth shuffled down the aisle, head bowed, abandoning the conference just before a grad worker took to the podium to denounce his betrayal of the spirit of ’68. Two days later, an unreconstructed Coatsworth published an op-ed in the Columbia undergraduate newspaper, The Spectator, reaffirming the university’s insistence that graduate workers were not workers.
On Monday, the strike ended as planned with another large turn-out. The following day, forty-eight hours after Coatsworth’s insistence that graduate workers were not workers, Harvard University announced its intentions to bargain in good faith with the recently elected graduate worker union there, the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU-UAW). If Columbia believed, through nearly twenty years of antiunion campaigning, that it was defending the integrity of education in the Ivy League, they suddenly found themselves standing alone, holding the bag for a cause their allies were abandoning.
Harvard, whose antiunion campaigns have closely paralleled Columbia’s, sold Columbia up the river. And despite Harvard’s long history of antiunionism, they have replaced Columbia as the most progressive of the Ivy League institutions, the Good Ivy. Harvard is most likely hoping to displace the fight against graduate workers there from the street to the bargaining table, to work toward a feeble contract (all the while praying for the Trump NLRB to overturn the Columbia decision.)
Perhaps Harvard trustees simply could not stand being associated with the Trump presidency. Perhaps Harvard was surprised at the large turnout of graduate workers and their allies in the fight for education during the weeklong strike at Columbia. The future is unpredictable, but if Columbia does not agree to bargain, the Graduate Workers of Columbia will be back with another strike, and then another.
Our intentions arc toward greater democracy in education, with the support and solidarity of other workers across the campus and across the country. Harvard’s move to recognize graduate workers as workers was a surprise, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Power is moving, and the connection between education and work is deepening. Educators, researchers, and all of the workers who make their endeavors possible are beginning to fight—and win. We are many. We are strong. And now I think, we will win.