Views from the Picket Line
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Columbia graduate workers cry out for change.
By Dominy Gallo, Cy Gilman, Elizabeth Jackson, Sam Needleman, Sophie Poole, Claire Shang, and Lyla Trilling
Last week, as the Graduate Workers of Columbia University’s strike commenced, Blue and White staffers spoke with 16 workers who are demanding third-party sexual harassment arbitration, an increase in stipends and summer funding, full union recognition, mandatory union membership, and a healthcare fund.
Conversations with the following graduate workers are drawn from over six hours of one-on-one interviews with Blue and White staffers. They have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yasemin Akcaguner, picket captain and organizer, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of History, teaching assistant.
Evan Brown, rank and file, second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of History, teaching assistant.
Susannah Glickman, organizer, fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of History, teaching assistant.
Geoff Harmsworth, rank and file, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Classics, teaching fellow.
Nancy Ko, rank and file, second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of History, co-president of the Graduate History Association, graduate worker.
Ioanna Kourkoulou, rank and file, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Physics, teaching assistant and research assistant (varies semesterly).
Joanna Lee, bargaining committee member, second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of East Asian Languages and Cultures, teaching assistant.
Manuela Luengas Solano, rank and file, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, graduate worker.
Noah Mintz, organizer, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of French & Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, teaching fellow.
Asher Morse, rank and file, second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of English and Comparative Literature, teaching assistant.
Lauren Moseley, bargaining committee member, third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Earth and Environmental Sciences, research assistant.
Sohee Ryuk, digital picket organizer, fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of History.
Eva Schreiner, rank and file, sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in Architecture at GSAPP, preceptor.
John Staunton, rank and file, first-year Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Physics, teaching assistant.
Anonymous Law Student, J.D. candidate at Columbia Law School.
Anonymous Physics Student, Ph.D. candidate in the Dept. of Physics.
John Staunton: All labor, in my opinion, should be represented—if we have a hierarchy where laborers are working for an employer who has power over their wages … we should have representation.
Joanna Lee: Negotiating with the University is always difficult because we have different interests and that’s pretty transparent.
Geoff Harmsworth: Administration, of course—we know it’s their job to, at least at one level, maximize profit for the University. So I think the resistance from the provost, from the president, and from their lawyers comes from a position of defending their material interests at the school.
Joanna Lee: I don’t think the University team has ever been on time to any of the sessions. The reason I bring that up is because sometimes it feels like there’s a certain level of posturing from the University that borders on disrespectful of our time and the ways in which we have put in a lot of effort into our proposals that are not always taken seriously. I think that that is a struggle, as we bargained with the University, to get them to see us as professionals, as equals, as people who have important stakes in the game, and not just talk to us as students. We are also employees. We should be treated like unionized workers who have a say at the bargaining table.
Evan Brown: There are plenty of institutions that do have fair contracts with their graduate workers that include some of the things we’re asking for. I’m sure that when Columbia sends out application materials to 17-year-olds, they don’t say, “Oh, we’re just about as good as other universities.” They claim to be a leader intellectually, socially, and politically. And so they should be. If they are not interested in taking leadership in that respect, I find that ironic.
Anonymous Law Student: This negotiation has been going on for years, and the University is able to kind of push it off because students, even if they stay for many years, still ultimately leave. The delay tactics and the union-busting tactics that the University has adopted are really frustrating.
Yasemin Akcaguner: The deans seem like they are being, perhaps, asked to not speak by the lawyers. It seems like the lawyers’ articulation of what the University can do is actually separate or different from what the deans are articulating at the bargaining table.
Susannah Glickman: They have the same law firm as Harvard did when they were bargaining against their union. Harvard workers’ fight for their contract was interrupted by the pandemic—they were pressured into settling and taking conditions that normally we would never take. I think, maybe, Proskauer Rose doesn’t want to deliver less to Columbia, and that’s part of the calculus.
Yasemin Akcaguner: Bernie Plum, or Bernard Plum. He is from the law firm Proskauer Rose, which, incidentally, is also accused of sexual assault. They adjudicate cases of sexual assault—at times they are lawyers of complainants—but also, the firm itself got #MeToo’ed. As a lawyer, he does this union busting professionally. His legal fees probably have, at this point, over the course of two years, added up to the amount of added health care provision costs that we have been looking for.
Evan Brown: So much of the justification for the treatment of graduate workers is the student framework. For the longest time, the entirety of the argument was that “you are students, this is part of your training, you’re not a real worker.” This idea that graduate school is supposed to be an extended hazing ritual through which you become some sort of intellectual genius is really harmful.
Joanna Lee: That’s been one of the challenges, because I think, from the University’s perspective, we are students primarily. So they tend to define a lot of things that for us are workplace issues to be issues connected to your status as a student.
John Staunton: This is the same logic that is used to justify things like unpaid internships. You are learning, but you are putting in work to help the company. It’s not a one-way relationship where the advisor is solely helping us. We’re also helping advisors by producing good research. Graduate students do a lot of research—I would argue more than the advisors, who play more of a guiding role. We have labs built of many tens and tens of graduate students who do experimental research and do the hard work to get results and data. All of that is labor that we feel should be represented.
Nancy Ko: To me, the fact that we’re students and workers is not something within the register of “despite,” it’s something that exists within the register of “especially because”: It’s especially because we are both students and workers that our position within the University is particularly precarious.
Nancy Ko: We got an email in our inbox less than 24 hours ago informing us that those graduate workers who strike will be docked not just from their payroll, which is the semi-monthly paycheck we get for TAing, but also docked retrospectively from our stipend.
In other words, and I can quote directly from his email, “payments made via the student account (sometimes referred to as a stipend) will be adjusted on a pro-rata basis to deduct the portion that corresponds to the period when the student was on strike.” If this funding was paid as a lump sum earlier this term—which, for most of us, it was—a debit will be added to their student account corresponding to the period when a student was on strike. That is completely reprehensible.
Yasemin Akcaguner: I am from Turkey—Istanbul. I’ve had international student friends who … couldn’t pay their rent to the University, for instance, and had to face the circumstances. We’re getting emails about, “You will lose your visa if you do not pay your student account balance til X day.” This is frightening for someone who has completely up and left their own home country, which is in some cases across the world. Ph.D. students all the way from Australia to China to India to Europe … who have made lives here on their student visas are now being told, “Because you cannot afford to pay your student account balance, you will be kicked out of the country.”
Manuela Luengas Solano: I know the bargaining committee and the union as a whole contemplates and knows that some people are more scared of having their docked pay, and that is something that shouldn’t be disregarded as, “This person doesn’t want to support a strike.” It’s like, “No, that person is more scared because their financial situation is completely different than yours!” From there, I think that a lot of solidarity will follow. I’ve heard that some colleagues that, for instance, have these Covid relief funds from the government are thinking about maybe creating a fund out of that and saying, “I don’t need this, maybe my fellow grad workers need them. Maybe this person that needs to pay a bill from the hospital needs it.” Those differences are taken into account for sure.
Anonymous Physics Student: [On the choice to remain anonymous.] I’m on external fellowships, so I get paid twice a year in lump sums of half of the amount that I’ll get for the entire year, and that pays, technically, for my thesis research, which the union is telling us to continue doing, because that counts towards academic progress.
The University said, not only will we dock pay—for you to be able to be guaranteed your pay, you have to check a box on a website that they didn’t even release yet. We don’t even know if they were bluffing or not, we didn’t know how that was going to be cut. Is it into the next lump sum that you’re getting? Is it in the next month? Is it now? I think they made it as ambiguous as possible so people wouldn’t have the answers and be as anxious as they possibly could.
Noah Mintz: In the midst of everything, a pandemic, while we’re already dealing with Zoom fatigue and just everything happening exclusively in our email inboxes, it’s easy to fall behind on emails. And it’s a very, very, very envisageable situation where someone just doesn’t see this email or forgets to do it by the deadline. And when our student accounts are tied to our healthcare, it puts us in actual danger.
Anonymous Physics Student: A lot of people are joking that the University is not even organized enough to be able to trace which students are striking, which ones are not, and dock our payments.
Lauren Moseley: It’s very clear that this threat from the University in terms of withholding pay from striking workers is purely an intimidation tactic. They have never shown this much initiative in terms of setting up new administrative systems and frequently, in fact, cite administrative burden when we are discussing our proposals—our very reasonable proposals—at the table.
Noah Mintz: It’s within their rights to not pay us for not working, but it’s not within their rights to retaliate and to have our strike or withholding of labor impact our status as students—especially because, for so many graduate workers at Columbia, the status of students is also what entitles them to housing through the University, to healthcare through the University, and to their legal status in this country as international students. All of those things are jeopardized by this proposed plan that Columbia has announced.
Nancy Ko: What’s so interesting is that they end all these emails by saying it is their right to withhold pay and we will not face retaliation from the administration for striking because it is our right to strike. Well, in effect, this is retaliation. This is an attempt at intimidating graduate workers and graduate students away from striking. And it is a very concrete endangerment of our status, not just as TAs, not just as workers, but also as students at the University.
The Cost of Doing Business
Joanna Lee: The ask for a living wage to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world should not be seen as an unreasonable ask.
We really took a lot of effort to make sure that our proposals were something that were reasonable, that have precedent in other contract negotiations, yet the University keeps insisting that our proposals are too expensive. But when we actually talk to them, when we talk to the provost very directly about how much he thinks our proposals cost, he’s not sure.
Asher Morse: The University has consistently been saying to us, over and over again to the union, “There is literally no money.” There was the pandemic, people chose not to enroll in college and the hospital system, which through elective surgeries is one of the biggest revenue generators for the University as a whole, is not performing those elective surgeries for public health reasons. They have said to us, again and again, “There is no money.”
Nancy Ko: I would make a comparison to, for example, the idea of the United States being in debt. It sounds scary if we were to say the United States is, let’s say, a trillion dollars in debt, but in reality, it doesn’t really do anything to the actual standing of the U.S. economy. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too much, but similarly, the very fact that Columbia University has an endowment makes any recourse to affordability a distraction at best. They’re choosing to protect some shady idea of institutional wealth over the basic wellbeing of graduate workers.
Susannah Glickman: They’re talking to us about equity and they’re saying,“We froze professors’ pensions, we froze everyone’s wages.” But none of these people with exorbitant salaries felt like it was the right thing to do to take a pay cut? I mean, come on. It’s really different having a pay freeze at $30k and at $4.6 million. I can’t believe that they’re leveraging the rhetoric around equity to tell us why we don’t deserve better wages and fair protections against harassment and discrimination.
Asher Morse: There’s a non-profit called the Center for Women’s Welfare that publishes, every couple of years, an academic index called the Self-Sufficiency Standard for various cities and states in the country, which is the amount of money that a given person would need in a year to not have to receive money from any other sources, public or private, like friends, giving loans, private consumer loans, charity, what have you. The idea is, it’s an estimate of what yearly income a given person or given family would need in order to not go into debt of any kind. For North Manhattan in 2014, and I assume the number is higher now because of inflation, that number for a single-parent family with one child—one adult, one child—was $53,000 a year for North Manhattan. In a perfect world, we would have jobs that paid us amounts of money to be self-sufficient if we were in circumstances where we needed that amount of money.
Susannah Glickman: The pandemic, as we’ve seen more broadly, has had disastrous effects on women and their ability to work and hold down jobs. In the same way, it’s incredibly hard to have a kid at any point in your graduate career. A lot of people were laid off in the pandemic, so they’re going from a two-income household to a one-income household. And that one income is a graduate stipend and it’s $30k a year. I don’t know how they make it. I’m incredibly impressed by my colleagues who have children.
Yasemin Akcaguner: This is me, as someone without a dependent, without chronic illnesses, someone who is young, an “ideal”—“ideal” in the imagination of the University about who should become a Ph.D. student. Except that I’m a woman, which is, of course, not who they envisioned as a Ph.D. student. If I even can’t pay my summer rent, what about my coworker who has a four-year-old and a family and a wife who just has lost her job because of Covid? What are they going to do?
Anonymous Physics Student: When I was a second-year, I think, there was one of my paychecks that got to me three months late. That’s why we need a union: So grad students who live on a small stipend, who barely have any savings, still have a way of paying to live in New York City.
Evan Brown: This larger issue with how we conceive of the University—the actual teaching of the students—is secondary to things like, in Columbia’s case, fancy buildings. Buildings, stuff that you can put donor’s names on, the returns on the endowment.
Sohee Ryuk: It’s important to think of our fight as not only narrowly conceived, as graduate student workers against Columbia.
Nancy Ko: Columbia University, much like Harvard, has been undergoing expansion, in Columbia’s case further into Harlem, and in Harvard’s case further into Allston—into communities that are being displaced, being essentially bought out or, more passive-aggressively, out-priced by the University. Millions and millions and millions of dollars¹ are going to these sorts of expansions at the same time that graduate workers and adjunct faculty are going without basic provisions.
Eva Schreiner: Manhattanville is a much bigger question of a neoliberal capitalist University in the 21st century, and how it gets money, and how money streams in the academy work. There can be an argument made that Columbia needs something like Manhattanville to attract money—so that it has modern up-to-date labs where certain researchers can take place so that they can apply to certain grant funds, et cetera, and that alumni money comes in, et cetera. But then ... the specific decisions made by Columbia in building that, and who was left out of that process, and where money was spent, where money wasn’t spent—that is something to be critical of. Columbia needs to seriously rethink where its focus is and what’s important.
Manuela Luengas Solano: I am on my own. I was living at Columbia Housing last year, but I actually had to leave because it was too expensive for me and I couldn’t afford it anymore.
Yasemin Akcaguner: Incidentally—not so incidentally, because I’m in Morningside Heights and Columbia has a hegemony over the real estate market here—I cannot pay my summer rent back to the University, which owns my apartment, because I don’t make enough. I’m in a kind of feudal relationship, you might say, where I work for them, and then they also own where I live. But I don’t have enough to pay them over the summer, so I have to go back to my home country, the flight tickets for which I also can’t afford on my stipend.
Evan Brown: The bigger structural picture is this crisis of higher education, in which we see actual teaching positions being undervalued—made into a more casual labor.
Eva Schreiner: Having a contract and having the stability to know where to go, how many sick days you can take, if there is a vacation—all of these things that you need to know before you start a job, we don’t know.
Ioanna Kourkoulou: Before coming here, I was under the impression that the terms for me working in the Physics Department were what my admission letter said: You have guaranteed 12 months of support, et cetera, et cetera, and you have to do some teaching in your first two years, and that’s it. And then I come here, and they tell me my first spring that “No, you don’t have guaranteed summer support. You have to do extra teaching.” And then they told me, “No, you actually have to teach every year.” And then last year they said, “Well, actually, we don’t even know if we can give you teaching right now. Maybe you won’t have any summer support at all.” So I really would love for people after me to be coming in here with a contract and not have to deal with this shit.
The Provost’s Pretense
Manuela Luengas Solano: The first email that we received last week was very frightening to all of us. Now, it’s more expected. We saw him live, repeating the discourse and the statements he’s making, which are, “I’m a labor scholar. I fully support the unions and the strikes, but this is beyond what we can afford.” Which is—we know it's not true.
Susannah Glickman: As a historian and someone who had admired Ira Katznelson’s work a lot—we all read it in orals, I know there’s a lot of faculty members that also look up to him—it’s massively disappointing. I think it shows the power of structures: There’s all of these labor scholars who end up on the wrong side of the bargaining table. With his career, it’s bizarre.
Manuela Luengas Solano: A lot of professors that I admired or—not only in the past, I still admire—that have been influential scholars on not only labor, work, or union, but radical pedagogy, not all of them have supported this strike so far.
Evan Brown: The previous strike was—and I should say that this is before my time here—just to basically get Columbia to the bargaining table. So the fact that that’s being trumpeted as some sort of achievement just shows how thorough the administration’s efforts to throw up obstacles are.
Asher Morse: I do feel like there are situations that I have seen, there are offers that the University has made, there are things that have been sent by its representatives that feel to me somewhat disingenuous. Maybe one of the most prominent examples … are the references that have been made in, I suppose, both of Provost Katznelson’s emails to the regretableness of the strike, given how much progress has been made on bargaining and how many different articles the union and the University were able to reach an agreement on in the weeks leading up to the strike. Just framing that as saying, “Oh, we were making such good progress! Why are you doing this now?” with seemingly no acknowledgement of the part that the impending threat of the strike may have played in speeding up those negotiations.
Ioanna Kourkoulou: I don’t want to say I was excited, but it was a kind of feeling that really made us think that, all right, our strike is working. They’re pushing back. They’re hitting where it hurts. So that’s good. Of course, there were a lot of feelings also about how people will be affected, how strike morale will be affected. But my first impression was that: Glad to see you take your masks off.
On Title IX
Joanna Lee: Many other unions on campus have access to grievance and arbitration for issues of discrimination, harassment, and bullying. That’s a very classic union protection to have, but the University consistently says that they don’t want an outside third party to arbitrate these issues.
We are … one of the more vulnerable populations at Columbia when it comes to discrimination and harassment: Because our advisors and our professors determine whether we stay in a program, they determine what types of appointments we get, they also determine access to funding, they determine the trajectory of our careers.
Nancy Ko: One of the very disingenuous things that has been said by the administration is that they don’t want to put students in an antagonistic relationship with one another and that having a third-party body adjudicating these cases would do so. It’s extremely disingenuous because the minute that there is a sexual harassment charge, something antagonistic has already happened.
The only entity being protected by a non-third-party arrangement is Columbia University as an institution itself, because it is deciding how guilty it as an institution or its employees as employees are. The University is clearly intent on protecting itself rather than protecting the entities within it.
Ioanna Kourkoulou: Our demand on arbitration and harassment, even though I haven’t been personally affected, if someone just takes a look at what’s happening with this particular demand, it’s outrageous. They even said themselves in the bargaining session that “it’s going to hurt the University greatly if we accept that—and not monetarily!”
Eva Schreiner: Neutral arbitration in grievance and discrimination proceedings is a very crucial, very, very important thing, especially given the kind of stories that have come out of Columbia, different departments over the last couple of years, and where the public is always kept out and then only some come out. All of these stories are so horrible, and Columbia is really fighting us hard not to have a third-party neutral arbitrator in any of these cases, saying their internal process is enough, which it clearly isn’t.
Anonymous Physics Student: Thinking about it, I was verbally harassed when I was a first-year, not by a faculty member in my department, but I was verbally harassed by someone at the University. And I would have reported this person if I felt like something was going to get done. If there was someone who was not in the University that could deal with it, because you feel threatened, as someone who is just coming in, to try to report anything.
Yasemin Akcaguner: We need third-party arbitration for issues of sexual assault on this campus because, like, 95 percent of the cases that have gone through the EOAA [Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] have not been resolved in the favor of the complainant. This is clear evidence that Columbia is not approaching these cases from a neutral point. And the University … kept on saying they want to hold on to the EOAA. We said, again, “We want third-party arbitration,” which they categorically refused again.
Evan Brown: They are making it abundantly clear that their concern is that if Columbia does not have control over the outcome of cases of harassment and discrimination, it will prove costly to the University—in terms of its reputation, in terms of its prestige, in terms of who gets invited to be the speaker at these events for these new buildings. I think that reflects the serious questions about the broader priorities of the University as to whether it is an educational and social community, or whether it is a hedge fund that has old books and some sports teams.
Susannah Glickman: I’ve helped run the History Department organizing for a few years. Part of our approach to organizing is building community, because building solidarity and building community are basically the same thing: making people think about what they owe each other.
Geoff Harmsworth: If you work in, say, an auto plant and you’re going on strike for a better contract, you’re worried about missing out on pay. You are not, however, feeling guilty about the cars that aren’t being made. That’s something that I think the administration has tried to use against us in some of their communications that went out, I think, to the entire University community, trying to pit us against our students. But from what I’ve seen, the students are largely on our side, and I don’t think that’s going to work.
Joanna Lee: It’s not that graduate workers don’t want to be teaching and don’t want to be doing research and fulfilling that academic mission—the University has just left us with no choice.
Evan Brown: There’s this weird narrative that because this is what you love to do, you shouldn’t complain. Because I love talking about history with students, because during the pandemic Zooming in and talking to my sections was the highlight of the week—because of that, I somehow forfeit my right to complain, forfeit my claim to treat it as an actual job, as an actual profession.
I want to believe, I do believe, that victory in this strike, which establishes this union as one of several positive forces working to change this university, will continue to generate momentum towards the reimagination of the University.
Manuela Luengas Solano: I was in this teach-in today with my fellow grad workers, and we were talking about hope, and how being hopeless is actually a very lazy position to be in, that hope requires a lot of effort and active engagement. I think that’s my position. I know that there’s a different way to make an academia that is not only progressive on paper, but in actual everyday work. So, yeah, I would say that I’m hopeful, not in a banal, kind of superficial way, but in the sense that I know that there’s people willing to work. And I am, too.
To support graduate strikers, consider donating to the hardship fund, sending a letter to the administration, asking your parents to call administrators and push them to meet the union’s demands, and requesting that your department chair issue a statement of solidarity. You can also sign up to picket digitally or in person, as well as attend open bargaining sessions this week.
¹Cost estimates for the Manhattanville campus project place it at around $6.5 billion.