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Student Workers of Columbia and their supporters block entrances to Columbia University in New York City on December 8, 2021

Student Workers of Columbia and their supporters block entrances to Columbia University in New York City on December 8, 2021. (Photo: Adrian Childress/Twitter)

Student Worker Strike at Columbia University Hits Boiling Point

It "would be incredibly destructive for everyone at the university" if administrators follow through on their threat to fire graduate student workers who continue to strike for a living wage and healthcare, said one participant.

Kenny Stancil

The graduate student worker strike that began in early November at Columbia University in New York City has reached a breaking point, as administrators have threatened to fire researchers and instructors who continue to withhold their labor in an effort to win better pay, comprehensive healthcare, and protection from discrimination and harassment.

Over the past six weeks, roughly 3,000 student workers at Columbia have made clear that the Ivy League school depends on poorly paid research and teaching assistants to function. University human resources vice president Dave Driscoll admitted as much last week when he sent an email informing workers that they would be replaced if they remain on strike beyond Friday.

"Our interpretation of this email is that it's basically a threat," Ethan Jacobs, a graduate student worker in the philosophy department at Columbia University and a member of the GWC-UAW Local 2110 bargaining committee, told The Guardian on Thursday.

"They are saying here's the date, December 10. If you're still exercising your right to engage in protected activity on or after December 10 there's no guarantee that you're going to get your job back," said Jacobs. "So we think that's the intention of the threat, but we also think that what they're doing is unlawful."

As The Guardian reported:

Jacobs described the unfair labor practice charges filed by the union against the university with the National Labor Relations Board. They include the university enacting a wage freeze and changing wage disbursement schedules earlier this year without negotiating with the union after its members rejected a tentative agreement after a strike in the 2021 spring semester.

According to the National Labor Relations Act, workers who strike to protest unfair labor practices cannot be discharged or permanently replaced. Jacobs expressed the union's intent to file additional charges with the NLRB over the university's threat to replace workers on strike.

Columbia's graduate student workers—currently engaged in the nation's largest active strike—are trying to secure a pay raise to offset the city's high cost of living, improved medical benefits that cover vision and dental care, and a third-party arbitration process to handle claims of harassment and discrimination.

The ongoing contract fight is the latest iteration in a yearslong struggle, which reached a turning point in 2016 when the NLRB ruled that graduate students are employees who have the right to unionize.

Tamara Hache, a graduate student worker in the Latin American and Iberian cultures department, told The Guardian that attempting to replace strikers en masse would have a devastating impact on the entire university, including international students like herself, who are not authorized to seek employment off-campus.

If the administration follows through on its potentially illegal vow to retaliate against the student workers, it "would be incredibly destructive for everyone at the university," said Hache. "It wouldn't just affect us as graduate student workers, but everyone. The quality of our students' education and our departments would be terribly impacted."

In the wake of the university's threat to replace striking graduate student workers, the union has turned to undergraduate students, parents, alumni, faculty, and the broader public for support.

Student Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers has garnered several high-profile endorsements, including one from pro-labor actor Danny DeVito, whose tweet reportedly helped raise $10,000 for the union's hardship fund, according to Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology.

The union has also staged protests, including a major demonstration on Wednesday. Following that event, university provost Mary C. Boyce on Thursday alleged that some picket lines were "violent," prompting Student Workers of Columbia to ask non-SWC members who participated to "attest that there was no such violence."

There was "occasional anti-picketer abuse, including shoving of kids and elderly allies, and countless insults," according to SWC member Iuri Bauler, whose sentiments were shared by others on social media. "We remained firm and peaceful, and interaction with the community was mostly positive."

Earlier this week, Columbia University said in a statement that "in the face of enormously trying circumstances created by the strike, our first priority is the academic progress of our students, particularly undergraduates whose classes are being disrupted. The message sent last week to the union bargaining committee explaining the university's approach to spring appointments and teaching assignments was necessary to fulfill that commitment."

"Replacing instructors who leave the classroom is permitted by U.S. labor law," the university claimed. "With respect to striking student workers who return to work after December 10, we will make every effort to provide them with suitable positions, as available."

While "professors worry about the fallout for undergraduates and their credit hours as the end of the semester looms," Inside Higher Ed reported Thursday, "many blame the university, not the strikers."

Columbia has more than enough wealth to resolve the strike by providing graduate student workers with a living wage and high-quality healthcare benefits.

The value of the school's massive endowment surged during the past fiscal year, increasing from $11.3 billion to $14.35 billion—a 32.3% return. Moreover, The Guardian noted, the university is "ending the fiscal year with a $150 million operating surplus, recovering from initial financial losses incurred by the Covid-19 pandemic."

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