Columbia University student workers begin second largest strike in the US

The strike by over 3,000 Columbia graduate student workers is taking place amid a wave of similar actions at some of the richest universities in the United States which have failed to give workers their due

November 09, 2021 by Monica Cruz
Student workers strike US
(Photo: GWC)

As many as 3,000 Columbia graduate student workers are entering their first week on strike demanding fair pay and healthcare benefits. It is the second largest strike in the US right now, second to the nearly month-long strike at John Deere, which has 10,000 workers on the picket lines. The demands of the workers at Columbia echo those of graduate student workers at private and public universities across the country. The strike comes on the heels of a three-day strike at Harvard University and ahead of an anticipated strike of 19,000 student workers at the University of California.

“I think we all share, practically, the same working conditions,” Tamara Hache, a fourth year PhD student at Columbia’s Latin American and Iberian Studies Department, said at the strike launch rally on November 3. “And I think the fact that [strikes] are happening in many universities proves that it’s a matter of labor, that we are workers, and that we need to be recognized as workers.”

The Student Workers of Columbia – United Auto Workers Local 2110 or SWC has been negotiating a contract with the university for more than four years. Back in the spring, the union rejected a tentative agreement and took the summer to reorganize internally. Once the fall semester began, members voted to authorize a strike beginning on November 3. This is the fourth strike these workers have gone on in the four years of negotiations.

Columbia’s offer addressed issues including wage increases, more funding for summer stipends and better funding for healthcare. But the union says its demands for childcare funding, dental and vision coverage, and the right to arbitration for discrimination and harassment claims are being left unanswered. The union is also fighting for proper recognition from the university, as per the National Labor Relations Board ruling in 2016.

Elite universities pay a pittance while making billions 

“We believe that withholding our labor from the university is the only way to get their attention at this point,” said Hache. “We teach a lot of classes and we’re bringing the university a lot of money.” Columbia University recently saw its returns shoot up by a third, and ended the 2021 fiscal year with an endowment of USD 14.3 billion. 

According to the MIT cost-of-living calculator for New York City, Columbia pays graduate student workers USD 6,000-USD 19,000 below a living wage, depending on the program they are employed with. And over the summer, the university unilaterally changed students’ compensation system, causing a USD 8,000 pay deficit for many workers.

Student workers with the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers Local 5118 or HGSU are calling out a similar gap between their university’s endowment and their pay. Harvard is the richest university in the world. It wrapped up the end of the 2020 fiscal year with an endowment of USD 42 billion, larger than the gross domestic product of many countries. And this whopping amount continues to grow, with a 33.6% return rate at the end of the June 2021 fiscal year, totaling USD 53.2 billion. 

The HGSU began their three-day strike on October 27 after seven months of contract negotiations. The major sticking points include fair pay, dental insurance coverage, and union security. Though their strike ended, their organizing has continued. The union held pickets at Harvard’s Family Weekend, distributing flyers to parents of freshman students on their cause and how their struggles for fair work conditions impact undergraduates. 

Their September strike vote gives the bargaining committee the authority to call strikes through the end of the year. Phoebe B. Carter, a PhD candidate in Literature and Comparative Literature, told the Harvard Crimson, “I think that at this point, we’ve shown our power, we’ve shown that we can disrupt, we’ve shown how much grad students do, and hopefully this will make bargaining move forward.” She continued, “But if it doesn’t, then we will go on strike again.”

And at another Ivy League university, graduate students are rising up to organize a union and fight for a livable wage and benefits. With an endowment pushing USD 20 billion, the university has received critique from student workers burdened with unaffordable rents. 

On September 27, over 1,000 graduate workers at MIT rallied for the launch of their graduate student workers union with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Just two weeks after the launch, MIT announced an unprecedented mid-year raise for all graduate students. The university claimed it was a result of USD 9 billion in endowment gains, but the union pointed out that MIT has seen gains every year for the past decade.

The union wrote in a statement on its website, “By taking decisive collective action and forming a union, graduate students are making our research and working conditions a priority for the vast resources of the Institute.”

Solidarity is key

Columbia’s graduate student workers have received an outpouring of solidarity from local unions and community groups, as well as the university’s undergraduate students. Hundreds participated in a walk-out during an undergraduate political science class taught by multimillionaire university president Lee Bollinger. At their strike launch rally, strikers told stories of tenured professors cancelling classes in solidarity. Other faculty members signed letters of solidarity with the strikers.

And across the country, solidarity from undergrads, faculty and campus staff has proven to be invaluable to graduate students organizing at the University of New Mexico. The United Graduate Workers of the University of New Mexico  joined a coalition of university worker unions, garnering critical support from faculty, cafeteria workers, custodial workers and university staff.  A month after a state labor board ruling recognized graduate workers as employees and granted them the right to organize, the union became the first graduate student workers union in the State and joined the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

The union has held rallies with hundreds in attendance, a feat for a small city like Albuquerque. They delivered a petition to the university president’s office with more than 1,600 signatures demanding that the university begin negotiations with them. 

Ramona Malczynski, a lead union organizer and teaching assistant in the university’s Geography Department, said, “We know that our union has the power to begin to transform our university into an institution that truly serves the majority low-income, ethnic minority and non-traditional students that attend it.” She emphasized that “universities have a lot of potential to bring workers from various sectors together … universities are places where thousands of working people can be introduced to labor organizing and further grow their class consciousness.”

Monica Cruz is a reporter with US-based media outlet Breakthrough News.