Columbia Students Continue the Long Tradition Of Women Fighting For Labor Rights

With any history of activism, there is a history of oppression to go with it.

In recent years, Columbia University has been the site of a series of ongoing labor disputes — disputes so outrageous, in fact, that the situation called for some old- fashioned grassroots organizing. Last fall, I helped start a student activist group, Student-Worker Solidarity (SWS), when the Barnard College desk attendants and clerical workers fought a long battle to secure a fair work contract with an increasingly corporate administration. This semester, SWS is spearheading a campaign to support the Faculty House dining hall workers, mostly immigrants and people of color who have seen little-to-no wage increases in the past decade, who are systematically laid off during academic breaks, and are the victims of wage theft. As one shop leader declared to the crowd at our last rally, “We are slave laborers … we have been sitting on the back of the bus for too long. We demand to come forward.”

The most impressive aspect of my experience with SWS, other than seeing the power that my peers have to organize, has been seeing the workers of our University organize themselves. Yet as a feminist and a member of the BCRW, I couldn’t help but notice that at our initial general body meetings, and at the first speak-outs we organized, white male student voices were heard through the megaphone far more than were the voices of my female classmates. 

The BCRW, of course, through its focus on domestic workers in a recent issue of the Scholar & the Feminist and its panel at the 40th Anniversary Conference featuring the seminal organizer Ai-jen Poo, has been a longtime supporter of turning up the volume of women’s voices in the labor movement. And at a panel discussion last fall, Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, spoke to the gender discrimination female workers at Columbia once faced. In an effort not to backpedal on those gains, concerned women in SWS instated a “progressive” manner in which a facilitator at a meeting could call on members. We actively encouraged women to move to the forefront at public events, and we held a feminist caucus to discuss the gender dynamics in our group.

I can easily say that my education outside the classroom has infinitely surpassed the knowledge I’ve acquired within an academic setting. And from my brief experience in organizing, I believe it’s absolutely crucial that my female peers continually assert ourselves not only within the gleaming gates of our women’s college, but on the soapbox and at the megaphone as well. I’m happy to report that through our constant efforts, we’ve successfully achieved that.

La lucha continúa.

An earlier version of this article appeared at the Barnard Center for Research on Women's blog.

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Emilie Segura

Emilie is a junior studying sociology at Barnard College in NYC. She is a research assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and an organizer with the group Student-Worker Solidarity.

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