The State of the Union
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Graduate students hit the picket line, demand that Prezbo bargain By Mary Dawson
When the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) gave a deadline for Columbia to start bargaining or else, they already created the hashtag CUonStrike. Months have passed since the union’s certification by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), punctuated by increasingly drastic actions taken by the union in the attempt to gain recognition by the University. Now, hundreds of recitations and Core classes have been cancelled as the GWC forms a picket line, still demanding that President Bollinger come out of his office and come to the bargaining table.
While the office of President Bollinger has remained silent throughout most of the unionization process, Provost Coatsworth took to LionMail over the past several months to criticize the union and the NLRB, even though, according to GWC bargaining committee member Rosalie Ray, “The question of whether or not RAs and TAs are workers has been settled.” Defending the argument that graduate workers are not equatable to employees, Coatsworth compared faculty members aiding workers in securing jobs after graduation to “training personnel and then placing the emerging talent with a competing business.”.
Coatsworth ended his March 1st letter by warning that a strike “would cause incalculable damage to the world class teaching, scholarship, and research that has attracted thousands of students and faculty to Columbia.” With 1968 graduate and undergraduate students voting on whether to strike, one might understand why Columbia would be sensitive to incalculable damage. In arguing that the administration’s refusal to bargain is the true cause of this “incalculable damage,” the GWC also interprets the concluding statement as an inadvertent acknowledgement of the role of graduate workers in giving Columbia its world-class reputation.
Even with a resounding 93% vote in favor of striking, however, questions abound as to whether the union can hold the line. According to graduate worker Davio Cianci, most opposers of the strike work in the sciences. He explained that some see graduate work with poor conditions and fewer benefits as a rite of passage, after which job opportunities and success in their fields await them. Far more often, he noted, science workers see more harm than benefit in striking. With stipends as much as $10,000 more than those given to humanities workers, many science workers believe that “humanities workers have far more to gain” from going on strike, struggling to find reason to involve themselves. While Cianci finds both these excuses “fair,” to him they are “rather cynical and not very empathetic.”
The current strike has a limited timeframe, arraigned to end before Reading Period at press time. The strike is not meant to hurt or punish undergraduate students. “We don’t want to be forced to strike,” Ray said. “It is far more the result of Columbia’s decision to break the law.” The strategy minimizes the risk of undergraduate backlash if grades are significantly delayed. The low commitment might also be a buy-in strategy to attract recalcitrant research assistants to the picket line. But most importantly, advocates of the strike hope this and future, longer, strikes will further expose the exploitation of the graduate workers as a labor source—if they stop working, perhaps they can prove how integral they are to the University’s operations. Furthermore, if the union’s strategy ultimately ends in negotiation, the GWC will have opened the door to unionization at other Ivies and private universities, where policy regarding unionization is similar to that upheld by Columbia. Ray remains optimistic about the possibility of negotiations, remarking, “I would hope that the administration would see that the union is not its adversary but rather a potential partner in making the university better.”