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Columbia Graduate Workers Are on Strike. Other Higher-Ed Workers Should Follow Their Lead.

Graduate workers at Columbia University are currently on strike, the culmination of a yearslong campaign for a decent contract. This kind of confrontation with the neoliberal university is the only way to win decent pay and working conditions in higher education.

Striking graduate workers at Columbia University on March 18, 2021. (Miles Richardson)

On Monday, March 15, thousands of graduate student workers at Columbia University went on strike, refusing to teach, grade papers, or perform research until their contract demands were met by the university administration.

Columbia graduate workers have been organizing since 2014 to demand that the university recognize their union. Because Columbia is a private institution, unless the university voluntarily recognizes the union — which it has not — the ability of graduate workers to unionize is decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In 2004, the Bush-era NLRB ruled that graduate workers at Brown University could not unionize, as they had “a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school.”

This debate — whether graduate workers are deemed to be students or employees — has been a defining issue for organizers at private universities for decades. But in 2016, the NLRB reversed its Brown decision after being petitioned by Columbia graduate workers. In a 3-1 ruling, the Obama-era NLRB affirmed the right of student workers at Columbia to organize: “The Board has the statutory authority to treat student assistants as statutory employees, where they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

This decision paved the way for graduate students at other private universities to unionize, galvanizing the higher education labor movement.

Despite this success, celebrations were short-lived. The Trump-appointed NLRB proposed a rule to overturn the Columbia decision in 2019, supported by right wing-pressure groups, including Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and the Liberty Justice Center (LJC). The board couldn’t force through this change before Joe Biden’s election, and Biden subsequently fired NLRB general counsel Peter Robb on his first day in office.

On March 12, the NLRB confirmed that it was shelving the Trump-era proposal to overturn the Columbia decision — a huge win for graduate workers at private universities. Still, the future remains uncertain. As Danielle Douglas-Gabriel writes, “The labor board has a history of shifting positions on the question of graduate worker rights that reflects the ideology of the party in power.” A future Republican administration could, and most likely will, try again to overturn the Columbia decision. For at least the next four years, however, graduate workers at private universities do have the right to unionize.

While the law is unambiguous, the Columbia administration has continued to obstruct organizing efforts using an array of typical union-busting methods. In 2016, when the NLRB held a formal vote, the university’s anti-union campaign led to more than six hundred workers filing contested ballots. In 2017, the university attempted to overturn the one-sided election results — 1,602 yes votes and 623 no votes in support of unionizing — by hiring a team of anti-union lawyers. Although these tactics failed and GWC-UAW Local 2110 was certified as a union by the NLRB in December 2017, the university continued its hostile crusade and ignored repeated requests to come to the bargaining table.

In response, the union went on a weeklong strike in April 2018. Incredibly, two years after contract negotiations started in March 2019, the university and the graduate workers have not agreed upon a contract. In February 2021, the union made a final offer: “agree to a fair contract by March 15 or we will strike.” The university refused, and thousands of Columbia graduate workers walked out.

The union’s demands parallel those of other graduate worker unions across the country: higher stipends and better-quality health care for workers. GWC is also demanding recognition of the full unit (including undergraduate and masters workers), a union shop, and “Neutral, third party, arbitration to dispute EOAA outcomes on harassment and discrimination, and to handle cases of bullying.” The strike has both an in-person and a digital picket, and at the time of writing, the Columbia Workers Solidarity GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $100,000 to support striking workers after the university threatened to dock strikers’ pay in retaliation.

The strike comes in the context of widespread academic injustice. As research by the Economic Policy Institute shows, non-tenure-track faculty and graduate student employees make up nearly three-quarters of the contemporary academic workforce. Graduate workers are expected to teach full classes or conduct research for paltry stipends that often fall well below a living wage. This, combined with a reduction in tenure-track positions, means that graduate workers have higher workloads while studying and bleaker prospects after graduating.

A 2010 Economist article stated that between 2005 and 2009, research universities produced 100,000 new doctoral degrees, but there were only 16,000 job openings in this time frame for professors. In addition, many universities have responded to the pandemic with rampant austerity: firing professors, axing programs, and even seeking to remove tenure. This, in turn, has put more pressure on underpaid graduate workers and further eroded post-graduation career prospects.

These precarious and exploitative conditions have, unsurprisingly, reached a breaking point for many graduate workers. In winter 2019, graduate workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) launched a wildcat grade strike, demanding cost of living adjustments for their stipends. After taxes, graduate workers at UCSC earn, on average, $19,000 a year in an area where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,379. This grade strike escalated into a picket in spring 2020, at which peaceful demonstrators were violently attacked by police on the third day.

In September 2020, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan voted to strike in response to the university’s unsafe COVID-19 reopening plan. They were subsequently joined at the picket line by student resident assistants, and unionized construction workers and truck drivers refused to work on campus throughout the strike. Wider social justice demands, such as defunding campus police, were tied to both strikes.

The neoliberal university structure is designed to exploit students and workers alike. Running universities like businesses inevitably creates and maintains a system of oppression. Direct action is needed to oppose this exploitation. While university administrators will happily toss a petition into the nearest shredder and seek to placate calls for transparency with yet another toothless investigatory committee, the sight of thousands of graduate workers marching around a city is harder to ignore.

Graduate workers at UCSC, Michigan, and Columbia are showing the power of withholding labor. Writing for Jacobin in August 2020, Tom Hansberger and Sarah Kizuk stated about academic workers at Marquette University, “the only way to protect educators is to organize.” The same is true at Columbia — and everywhere else.