Strange Beasts of ColumbiaRoundup
tags: strikes, Columbia University, graduate students, labor history, Labor Unions, academic labor
Eduardo Vergara Torres is a PhD student in Latin American and Iberian cultures at Columbia University.
According to the administration, the typical Columbia student worker must be an eyeless, toothless, infertile male creature bred on the cold shores of New England, who is about to inherit a fortune amassed by generations of well-educated ancestors. A strange aura makes him immune to any power-based harm, and its internal organs enable him to breathe well below the level of a living wage in New York City. You won’t find such a creature in any ancient bestiary; it could only have been born from the bowels of Columbia’s Lovecraftian bureaucratic imagination. It is the image that explains the administration’s reluctance to settle for a fair contract that provides dental and vision insurance, family leave and childcare, real protections against discrimination and harassment, union security, and a living wage. During a recent bargaining session, Columbia’s anti-union lawyer reacted with an uncanny line toward our otherworldly demands: “we are not even in the same universe.”1 It is true. What remains to be seen is which of us is the alien.
If the description above does not fit you, then you will understand why we, over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers, are about to enter our ninth week on strike. It is not the first time. The Student Workers of Columbia have been on strike four times in the last three years: spring 2018, fall 2020, spring 2021, and now fall 2021. The issues remain the same. The administration’s strategy has also remained the same. Now, having returned to campus after the pandemic disruption, we have reached a breaking point. Dozens of unions throughout the country have too. We stand together and we will not give up.
Over the course of the pandemic, Columbia’s alleged financial crisis was at the heart of their anti-unionization push. This was quickly revealed to be a lie, as Columbia’s wealth grew $3.3 billion in 2020, amounting to a staggering $14 billion endowment.2 After the union rejected a tentative agreement reached in the spring 2021 semester, Columbia refused to bargain during the summer 2021 term.3 Instead, they froze our wages and changed our pay structure in retaliation. These union busting tactics were aimed at weakening our members in the event that we would need to go on strike in the fall. By doing so, the University ended up creating the critical situation we are in now. To put this into perspective: we received our last paycheck last November 15, for $93.30, and now hundreds of us, in different schools and departments, owe Columbia thousands in rent, which earns you a registration hold for the next semester. Columbia can at times appear to us as a monster of many tentacles: it is our academic advisor, our employer, our landlord, our health insurer and provider, our safeguard against discrimination and harassment, our visa sponsor. Comparisons with a company town fall short in depicting how horrific it can be to fall from grace with such an organism.
The first four weeks of the strike were met with Columbia’s well-known reluctance to bargain in good faith. Seeing that we were not giving up, anxieties over the loss of classes for a full month began to grow, and their evident willingness to stonewall the process caused membership to grow rather than shrink. That’s why, earlier in December, the administration posed not a new proposal but rather their ultimate threat: job loss. Columbia declared that they would cancel student workers’ appointments scheduled to start mid-January 2022 if they did not return to work by December 10th. Such a threat is illegal as workers cannot be “permanently replaced” when on an Unfair Labor Practice strike such as ours.4 When the date came, we learned that Columbia Human Resources was distributing a sort of black list to each department indicating who would and would not be eligible for appointments next semester, depending on their participation on the strike.5 Just like a famous Christmas song, Columbia was making a list and checking it twice. And would definitely find out who was naughty and who was nice.
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