Student Workers of Columbia made labor history with its 10-week strike last fall. 10 months later, organizers across academia speak to its lasting impact.
By Grace Adee and Muni Suleiman
In March 2022, Columbia College Student Council was preparing a letter on behalf of Columbia’s first-generation, low-income students to bring to the Board of Trustees. Included was a list of demands, one of which was equitable pay for resident advisors who are on financial aid. While RAs who pay full tuition receive free housing (the equivalent of $10,000–$11,000) and a $1,000 stipend, RAs who have their housing already covered by Columbia grants receive only the stipend.
When one RA, CC ’23, saw a draft of the demands shared in the resident advisor GroupMe, it only added to her growing frustration with the RA work environment. In addition to experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination while performing RA duties, she has regularly found herself running up against the limitations of strained crisis care services like Emergency Medical Services, Sexual Violence Response, and Columbia Psychological Services. Seeking to reimagine the fraught role, she worked with fellow RAs to form Columbia University Resident Advisor (CURA) Collective, a student group dedicated to improving work conditions for RAs through pay equity, mental health support, additional recourse for harassment and discrimination, and protection from housing loss.
Soon after CURA’s formation, they turned to Student Workers of Columbia, fresh from their strike and subsequent contract negotiation, for advice. CURA sent SWC information about the RA position—its pay structure, training, and responsibilities. SWC responded emphatically, the CURA organizer said, “egging us on and being like, ‘you guys should organize, this isn’t right—you need just workplace policies.’” Another CURA member, SEAS ’25, decided to join in part because of her experiences supporting her striking University Writing instructor on the picket line last fall. She sees expanding undergraduate worker rights as the next frontier in campus organizing: “We’re absolutely building off of the work they did.”
The long-term ramifications of the negotiations between Columbia’s graduate student worker union and the University are only beginning to make themselves known. SWC’s strike, which lasted for 10 weeks, was the longest strike in higher education in over a decade. The standoff between the University and its instructors, teaching assistants, and research assistants garnered national attention, becoming a flashpoint amid intensifying debates over graduate student unionization across the country. The contract that was eventually ratified included a 6% raise for workers with annual contracts, an increase in hourly wages from $15 to $21, a $300,000 emergency fund for out-of-pocket medical expenses, and the ability to seek third-party arbitration in cases involving discrimination or harassment, among other stipulations.
In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board decided that graduate students at Columbia University were statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act and allowed to organize a union, overturning their 2004 ruling that graduate students at private universities could not engage in collective bargaining. The decision precipitated a surge in graduate worker organizing at private universities including Harvard, Brown, Georgetown, the University of Chicago, and New York University.
These unions watched the strike at Columbia very closely, knowing that it would have wide-reaching implications for their activism. “I think leadership in our union really admires what they did,” said Michael Ziegler, the political director for the Graduate Labor Organization at Brown. “As far as I’m concerned, they won. They won big.”
Laura Colaneri, the former communications secretary for Graduate Students United at UChicago, described the cross-institutional solidarity the strike fostered, as many GSU organizers had friends or partners at Columbia or had studied there themselves. “The academic world is actually quite tight,” she said. “We’re in conversation with these people. They are our colleagues.”
These same connections catalyze the creation of new unions, as students transfer knowledge between undergraduate and graduate institutions, as well as postdoctoral programs and adjunct positions. “There’s people who go to grad school and they came from a different university for undergrad where there was a grad union there,” Jewel Tomasula, the former president of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, added. “They come to a new institution for grad school, and they have some of that knowledge and fire with their friendships from their old institutions.”
During recent Columbia strikes, many NYU students took the train uptown and joined the picket line themselves. The proximity of the campuses, as well as a shared national affiliation under UAW, heightened this sense of connection. Colin Vanderburg, a union representative for NYU’s graduate student union, said, “It takes a lot of energy, dedication, courage to go out on strike and to stay on strike. And you need all the support and all the solidarity you can get … we tried to be there supporting graduate workers at Columbia.”
NYU’s rich history of graduate student labor organizing makes clear that Columbia students have both inspired and learned from movements at other schools. In 2001, NYU’s union became the first graduate employee union at a private university and negotiated a contract with their university’s administration. Dominic Walker, a Ph.D. student in Columbia’s sociology department, former bargaining committee member, and a prominent SWC organizer, remarked that NYU’s trailblazing efforts provided important lessons for SWC’s development and motivation during the strike.
Many graduate labor organizations felt galvanized by the policy changes that resulted from the contract between SWC and Columbia, ratified last January after 97% of 2150 members voted in favor. The contract negotiations were notable not only for the lengthy strike and looming threat of retaliation, but also because Columbia conceded to demands which unions at peer institutions had never yet won, such as the option for third-party arbitration in Title IX cases. (Harvard’s union, Harvard Graduate Students Union, won the right to neutral arbitration in their contract negotiations last fall, but only for cases which do not allege gender-based discrimination under federal law.)
Colaneri observed that Columbia’s strike encouraged her and others in GSU to pursue more radical goals as they reconfigured the union in the wake of the pandemic. She’s been a part of the organization since she came to UChicago in 2016; in the past, she said, “dialectical” tendencies in academia led her to settle for “good enough” when formulating demands and to make compromises even before proposals were brought to the University. But Colaneri has noticed a growing movement at UChicago and other campuses “to become more comfortable with having to go to what might seem like extremes—like a strike.”
Colaneri attributes the growing acceptance of “radicalism” in part to the example of student workers at Columbia and Harvard, who have proved “willing to go out and be striking in the frickin’ snow for that long.” While acknowledging the many similarities in the platforms and strategies at Columbia and Harvard, Koby Ljunggren, president of HGSU, characterized SWC as unique in its politics and its impact. “I’ve never seen a more militant graduate union, at least rhetorically,” said Ljunggren. “In that 10-week strike, I feel like the message was like, ‘burn it all down,’ which I feel like they did.”
HGSU went on strike for three days in late October 2021, just a week before SWC did. “That wasn’t an accident,” said Ljunggren, who was part of the bargaining committee. The unions hoped to coordinate the timing of their strikes in a way that would mount pressure on both universities. But Harvard’s bargaining committee ultimately took a different path than Columbia’s: By the end of November, they had ratified their contract with 70.6% approval. Though many, including Ljunggren, were ultimately satisfied with the stipulations of the new contract, the ratification process created tensions within HGSU and with collaborators at SWC. “I think a lot of folks at Columbia were also blindsided by what happened here at Harvard,” they said.
Leading up to the ratification vote, some of the core members of HGSU ran a forceful campaign urging graduate students to vote “no” on the contract, arguing that its clauses didn’t go far enough on issues such as ensuring union security or recourse for discrimination and harassment. “[HGSU] diverged in that we ratified that first contract we proposed. Because that happened, a lot of our militant folks have dropped off,” Ljunggren said. Columbia seemed to have “the opposite problem,” ultimately losing members who, like Ljunggren, were put off by more polarizing rhetoric and tactics.
Shortly after Harvard’s acceptance of the contract, representatives for Columbia weaponized the decision against SWC organizers in bargaining sessions. In discussions between Harvard and Columbia organizers, Columbia organizers were told to consider Harvard’s route but ultimately decided to continue with their strike. “It was certainly challenging to feel like we were supposed to be giving each other power and then they kind of decided to go a more concessionary route,” noted Katy Habr, an SWC organizer and sociology Ph.D. candidate. She feels that though the time-coordinated striking “didn’t work out exactly,” it is a strategy full of potential that should be employed in the future.
Harvard and Columbia’s diverging paths have not undermined a shared understanding of the importance of unity across graduate unions. Shortly after the strike, Walker recalls speaking with an HGSU member and agreeing that the unions should ask each other about strategies, information, resources—whether or not it’s strike or bargaining time. Because university administrations coordinate with one another, Walker explained, unions must also collaborate. As Habr put it, it is crucial to “fight back against that and build power together.”
At Brown, GLO’s three-year contract with the University expires in June 2023, and Ziegler described how they plan to study campaigns at Columbia, Harvard, and elsewhere as they survey their members and generate their proposals. Ziegler acknowledged that the 10-week Columbia strike was “very difficult” and that there are “almost certainly going to be members who do not want to do that,” while emphasizing that GLO has been inspired by Columbia’s success and that they are likewise prepared to go on strike if necessary. Ziegler also affirmed the old union adage that “the best strike is the one that you don’t have to have.”
Since SWC’s strike last winter, the union has fielded requests for advice from universities and graduate students nationwide. Walker observed various students from across campuses that were on the picket line, physically or virtually, felt inspired to start advocating for themselves. This includes individuals from schools such as Indiana University and Rutgers, where the administration “is trying to bar them from receiving an additional year of funding that they promised to them from Covid.”
These conversations, cross-campus and cross-coastal in some cases, create a strong sense of communal learning in a high-stakes environment where constantly refining skills and strategies is essential for success. “We build off of each other,” Walker said, reflecting on his experience on SWC’s bargaining committee. He explained that SWC was able to examine other union contracts, see what they had, and ask themselves, “should we be demanding more?”
That question is especially on the minds of new or developing graduate student unions. In its short four years at Georgetown, GAGE has not held a strike, but their recent efforts are to achieve a contract with higher wages. Current president Dominick Cooper has been inspired by the uptick in actions from other university unions: “We see other grad locals with contracts that are starting to resemble what we’re fighting for.”
In January, just as Columbia arrived at a tentative agreement with its student workers, Princeton announced an average increase of 25% to about $40,000 in fellowship and stipend rates for its graduate students, the largest one-year increase ever at the school. Princeton’s graduate student union, Princeton Graduate Students United, has not been legally recognized.
Attributing this raise to the collective power of the unions, Walker is very convinced that Princeton’s stipend hike was directly correlated with the severity of the Columbia strike. He felt that with the raise, the administration was really saying “please don’t do any of that crazy shit that they’re doing down there … Just take this money and go.” Walker affirmed that “we’re not just fighting for ourselves, but we’re fighting for graduates in similar universities.”
Professor Adam Reich, who studies labor issues in Columbia’s sociology department, argued that this pay increase is a “classic” form of union busting. Many organizers at other schools also interpreted the pay increase at Princeton as an attempt to preempt an upswell in union organizing inspired by strikes and protests at peer institutions.
Ziegler said he noticed a similar but subtler reaction to Columbia’s strike by Brown’s administration. Under their current contract, Brown’s graduate worker union renegotiates their wages for the upcoming school year every spring. In 2021, when their agreement included a 2.5% raise, negotiations extended almost until the end of the school year; this year, they settled on a 13% raise by early March. “There are a lot of factors that you can maybe attribute to this, but honestly I think that they were just really afraid that we were going to strike,” Ziegler said.
In contrast, Colaneri argued that UChicago’s administration hasn’t become much more amenable to graduate student demands over the last few years of nationwide union activity. However, she has observed the University quietly preempting union demands and shifting unpopular policies. She pointed to a $50 referral fee for students seeking off-campus medical care. When the University eventually waived this fee, Colaneri felt that it was part of a strategy “to mollify us so that we will quiet down or that some of our support will diminish.” But for Colaneri, changes like these aren’t evidence of turning tides within administration; rather, she said, “that’s just evidence that we’re winning.” Ljunggren has noticed a similar pattern: While Harvard has “ramped down their messaging” with regards to the union, this has meant that their communications often downplay or erase HGSU’s role in policy change.
Ljunggren characterized the union’s relationship with Harvard’s administration as having reached a tentative detente for the time being. Since their strike and second contract, Ljunggren said, Harvard has “sort of accepted the fact that we exist and that we will continue to exist.”
Of course, the most profound effects of SWC’s strike are felt on Columbia’s own lawns. When CURA sought their guidance, SWC organizers encouraged them to collect testimonials from as many RAs as possible, emphasizing the importance of creating solidarity when many students feel “very siloed in their buildings,” the CURA representative said. CURA ultimately chose to circulate a petition with their demands—first among RAs, and then, once they had collected 50 or 60 signatures, across campus and beyond. They delivered this petition to the Columbia Board of Trustees on June 30. On July 26, the University responded with the updated payment policy, in which all RAs are compensated with a $13,000 honorarium irrespective of their financial aid package, securing equal compensation for all resident advisors. (This policy is advantageous for RAs, but not equally so—for instance, international students can be subject to a 30% tax on this income because of its classification as an honorarium.) For the 2022–23 school year, RAs retain the option to be compensated under the old policy. They were given until Aug. 2 to make that decision, a tight timeline that frustrated CURA organizers. “We appreciate that [the University] made a policy change, but we also ask for clear communication, and this is not adhering to that,” said the organizer.
The University agreed to extend that deadline on a case-by-case basis and to hold individual meetings with RAs to discuss their choices. However, the University has not yet taken steps to address CURA’s other demands, including mental health resources and harassment recourse. CURA Collective plans to continue organizing around these issues. As they move forward, they hope to focus on the unique position of RAs, whose needs may deviate significantly from those of instructors and researchers. “It motivates me to think outside of the traditional labor demands that people have,” a CURA representative said. “What is our work like? And what do we need that might not be very clear to us or that Columbia might be completely ignoring?”
Even as they forge their own path forward, CURA Collective representatives said that SWC set the stage for CURA to generate momentum. In particular, SWC’s insistence on including undergraduate teaching assistants and research assistants in their campaign energized Collective members to see themselves as workers in their own right. With so many undergraduates spending their very first semesters at Columbia on the picket line, many couldn’t help but turn to each other and ask, “what’s next?”
“All of these workers have organized for very honestly radical demands on Columbia’s campus, considering what contracts usually look like,” a CURA member said. “So if they can organize, you know, why can’t we?”