Graduate students might be the next group striking for their rights
Graduates listen to US President Barack Obama as he delivers the Commencement Address at Barnard College’s graduation ceremony in New York. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

Graduate students might be the next group striking for their rights

Amid a wave of labor actions by teachers in states like West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma, members of Columbia University’s embattled graduate student union might be the next group headed for the picket line.

According to a statement released by the Graduate Workers of Columbia University, Local 2110 of the United Automobile Workers, if Columbia president Lee Bollinger and other school administrators don’t agree to bargain with the union by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the group will “go on strike immediately ... and continue the strike through the end of classes (April 30).”

“This is only the beginning,” the statement reads. “If Columbia continues to refuse to bargain, they should expect us to strike again.”

Ever since a statewide education strike in West Virginia shuttered schools for nearly two weeks in February and March, eventually netting teachers a 5% pay increase, teachers in GOP-controlled states across the country have also begun mobilizing to secure better funding for schools and better pay for teachers.

In Oklahoma, teachers brought their own nine-day walkout to a reluctant end on April 12 after state legislators agreed to give them a modest $6,100 pay bump and increase funding for public education by $50 million. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey recently promised teachers a 20% pay increase by 2020, as well as an additional $1 billion in school funding that had previously been cut from the state’s budget.

But despite sharing much common ground with the educators deciding to organize in other states, including meager salaries and benefits, the members of GWC-UAW have had to fight to get Columbia administrators to even recognize the validity of their union — a fight that doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.

In December 2016, eligible graduate and undergraduate student workers voted 1,602 to 623 in favor of unionization, a vote which the National Labor Relations Board certified in December 2017. But in January 2018, in a letter addressing the union efforts, Columbia provost John H. Coatsworth announced that the school’s administration would appeal the ruling and would decline to engage in bargaining with union representatives until an appeals process was complete.

“We recognize the potential, indeed the likelihood, for disappointment and dispute in our community,” Coatsworth wrote. “Needless to say, we have not come to this decision lightly. We remain convinced that the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.”

In January 2015, Bollinger underscored his ideological resistance to the union, telling Politico, “There’s a deeper principle for me at stake.”

“I really think of our graduate students as students, not as employees,” he said. “And that has a large meaning to it. I think we feel a responsibility for students beyond what it means to be an employee. So that’s been my position.”

But Rosalie Ray, a third-year Ph.D. student in Columbia’s School of Architecture, Preservation and Urban Planning, told Mic in a phone interview that the administration’s position has seemed a lot more like standard union-busting rhetoric than a so-called “principled stance.”

“When we hear from folks in unions on campus, they’re not particularly surprised that Columbia found a way to take an anti-labor stance with us, but it does very much more feel like it’s just an anti-labor stance,” Ray said. “It’s not actually a principled stance on our positions as workers. They don’t want to bargain with us and they don’t want to share power and they are finding sort of whatever means necessary to do it.”

Ray, 30, said that the planned strike on campus comes at the perfect time, because watching education workers around the country petition their state governments has infused Columbia’s movement with a renewed sense of purpose.

“We’ve definitely gotten a lot of feedback in meetings and in organizing conversations that’s like, ‘West Virginia did it. West Virginia was only out for 11 days. Let’s see if we can do it!’” Ray said. “I think mostly what it’s done has changed the context around the strike and made it seem more possible and more viable to members who may have been less excited before.”

Columbia isn’t the first university to spar with graduate students attempting to organize on campus. In 2015, students at neighboring New York University executed their own contract with the UAW, becoming the first recognized union of graduate employees at a private university in the country to do so. On April 20 — four days before students at Columbia plan to head for the picket line — Harvard teaching and research assistants voted 1,931 to 1,523 in favor of forming a union of their own.

While Bollinger might consider the issue purely ideological, Columbia graduate workers say they’re up against material challenges — including a dearth of affordable housing opportunities, working conditions they say are dangerous and a lack of grievance procedures, said Evan Jewell, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in classical studies.

Columbia graduate students frequently double as teacher’s assistants or resident advisers, in addition to hacking away at their own heavy course loads, and the university doles out a small yearly stipend in exchange for the labor (for the 2017-2018 academic year, that stipend is $28,290). But the cost of living in New York City is notoriously steep, and finding even Columbia-provided housing can be next to impossible on that budget.

“It’s definitely above the poverty line but it’s still not that livable in New York City, if you think about it,” Jewell told Mic. “Columbia’s housing office doesn’t care if housing prices hew to what a graduate student’s budget is. That can cause a lot of financial problems for people, especially if they have families.”

For other graduate student workers, like Olga Brudastova, subpar conditions in Columbia’s storied facilities have created workplace safety concerns that would typically fall under the purview of a union.

In March, Brudastova, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering and engineering mechanics, submitted a request for Columbia University’s facilities department to check the ventilation system in the computer lab where she works, which she said had been unusually stuffy.

“It’s a common problem, because our building is one of the older buildings on campus,” she said in a phone interview. “Columbia is a research institution, and health and safety in the workplace should be a priority.”

But when workers from the university’s facilities department showed up to inspect, what seemed at first blush like a routine repair revealed itself to be a much larger construction project: Not only was the ventilation duct not properly installed, but the beam that it rested on was at risk of caving in.

According to Brudastova, that’s nothing compared to the conditions in the campus’s William Black Medical Research Building, where “yellow, gray and brownish” water and poor air quality eventually spurred graduate students to create a petition, which went live in November 2016.

“Graduate students’ persistent requests have been mostly ignored, but if there were a union contract in place, there would be a clear grievance procedure and enforcement mechanism that grad workers could utilize to ensure that requests are addressed promptly,” the petition reads.

Columbia has also had to reckon with its own “#MeToo” moment, with several high-profile faculty departures punctuating the past six months. According to Jewell, however, the mechanisms for students to report such harassment are sorely lacking on campus.

“A lot of people have joined the union out of anger because there’s no third-party, non-university-appointed arbitrator for these sexual harassment cases,” Jewell said. “There weren’t sufficient avenues for a lot of my female friends — if they wanted to report something, they had to report it to someone who’s a Title IX officer.”

But just as the battle for workers’ rights at Columbia is ideological for Bollinger, Ray says the fight for a union contract is ultimately about more than wage hikes and bureaucratic channels.

“I think it’s particularly ironic to me that the way provost Coatsworth and others try to fight this is by hearkening back to a vision of the university as this beautiful mentor-student relationship,” she said. “Actually I think what this fight is for is for the soul of the university, and to build in protections and participation and power-sharing that allow it to remain a place where new ideas and new visions of society can be produced.”