Despite threats, biggest strike in the US continues at New York City’s Columbia University

Workers are “ready to fight” after administration told them they could lose their jobs if they don’t go back to work

December 09, 2021 by Monica Cruz
Striking workers picket outside the 116th street entrance of Columbia University’s campus in Harlem on December 8, 2021. Photo: Monica Cruz

The biggest strike in the US continues at the prestigious Columbia University, where over 3,000 graduate student workers have entered their 6th week on strike. On Thursday December 2, the university sent an email out to the workers, which essentially threatened to permanently replace them if they don’t go back to work by December 10.

Alex Jensen, a PhD student and a teaching assistant in the philosophy department told Monica Cruz, “We’re pissed off and we’re ready to fight.” He emphasized, “People are really undeterred by this threat to be replaced.”

The graduate workers union, a local of the United Auto Workers, has filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. If the Board rules in their favor, it would classify the strike as an unfair labor practice strike and make the university’s threat to permanently replace them illegal. The university is arguing that the strike is an economic one and that the unfair labor practice charges “lack merit.”

There is no timeline for when the NLRB will decide on the charges.

With the semester coming to an end in just a couple of weeks, the stakes are sky high. Foreign student workers taking part in the action risk being deported because their work visas bar them from working anywhere else. Every striker is bearing the weight of forfeiting their pay. Thousands of undergraduate students are missing out on classes.

With tuition costing $60,000 a year, it’s only a matter of time before upset students and their families begin to apply pressure on the university to get things back to business.

Grant Miner, a PhD student in the English and Comparative Studies department told Monica Cruz, “The university just hasn’t taken us seriously.” He called the threat to fire workers “a strikebreaking and scare tactic.”

He said of the university’s administration, “They email lies to the undergraduates saying that not all of us are striking and that the [union] leadership is runaway with radicalism. And it’s not true. And we can tell by the numbers out here that the people are demanding things in solidarity together.”

The graduate student worker union organized a large protest on Wednesday December 8, and shut down two main entrances of the university’s Manhattan campus. Dozens of community members and workers from a host of different unions joined them in solidarity.

Long-time Harlem resident and public housing tenant organizer Nina Crawford joins the picket line in solidarity. Photo: Monica Cruz

Nina Crawford, a long-time Harlem resident and public housing tenant organizer, has joined the workers at the picket lines for three weeks in a row. She pointed out the connections between this labor struggle and the fight to stop the university’s huge role in gentrifying her neighborhood.

She told Monica Cruz, “I don’t wanna move. I don’t wanna be gentrified. That’s why I’m trying to help the college people keep their jobs. Cause it’s not right. We got the right to strike. We got the right to protest.”

She continued, exclaiming, “We have to stick together because for the powers that be, everything is money and so they win with the money, but we win with our voices, so we’re shutting it down!”

Members of the Teamsters Local 804 showed out in solidarity, bringing a “fat cat” inflatable, which one picketer said represented the university’s multi-millionaire president Lee Bollinger.

“It’s ridiculous what Columbia University is doing to its workers,” said Josh Pomeranz, the Director of Operations of the Teamsters Local 804. “And all of these folks deserve to be able to earn what they put in. So we’re happy and proud to be here with them and we’re inspired by their bravery here.”

The graduate student workers are fighting for a contract that guarantees them fair wages, dental insurance, and a right to third party arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.

Talks between the union and administration are ongoing.

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

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