We have been fighting for our first contract since 2017. In just the past few months, our union has pursued several lawsuits with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the university with unfair labor practices. In response, the university’s administration has resorted to further intimidation and retaliation. Under federal law, workers cannot be fired for participating in a protected strike — yet, last week, Columbia threatened to
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Grad-student unionization campaigns are sometimes seen as unrelated to larger trends in higher ed. This is a misperception.
We have been fighting for our first contract since 2017. In just the past few months, our union has pursued several lawsuits with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the university with unfair labor practices. In response, the university’s administration has resorted to further intimidation and retaliation. Under federal law, workers cannot be fired for participating in a protected strike — yet, last week, Columbia threatened to withhold spring-semester appointments from striking workers. On Monday, a number of faculty walked out to protest this threat; Mae Ngai, a professor of history and Asian American studies, termed it a “lockout.”
Now is the time for tenured faculty to throw their weight behind graduate-student organizing. (Solidarity rallies are good. Canceling classes is better.) Unionization campaigns among graduate students are sometimes seen as unrelated to larger trends in higher education, but this is a misperception. Our strike is not a sideshow; it’s a response to damaging, large-scale trends in higher education, including the rise of a consumer model of education, the casualization of academic labor, widespread student debt, and the financialization of university assets.
As graduate workers, we have witnessed firsthand the countless contradictions of the hedge-fund university. Columbia sells sweatshirts declaring “Health Is a Human Right,” but thousands of its own employees don’t have dental or vision coverage. Our health-insurance plan was downgraded in 2019 and has yet to be restored, despite the continuing pandemic. Yet the past fiscal year proved to be the most lucrative for the university in over 10 years. The lesson? The priority is always the “health” of the university’s $14-billion endowment.
These issues materially affect the lives of thousands of graduate workers trying to make ends meet in a notoriously expensive city. But they are also symptoms of a deeper, underlying rot. Despite its endowment’s stellar performance, Columbia has instituted hiring freezes and universitywide spending cuts, including aggressive reductions in funding for individual departments. Senior administrators with million-dollar salaries have not taken pay cuts, even as their colleagues at peer institutions tighten their belts. Over the past 10 years, Columbia has increasingly relied on contingent faculty without long-term contracts: adjuncts, graduate students, lecturers, and postdocs. In the arts and sciences, the number of faculty not eligible for tenure has jumped by 44 percent since 2010. This environment produces antagonism, competition and vulnerability by design.
Our students recognize that our working conditions are their learning conditions. Since the first day of the strike, undergraduates from both Columbia University and Barnard College have supplied food and water to striking workers on the picket line. Dozens of undergraduates joined their graduate teachers in a pre-strike protest in early November. When Columbia tried to discipline them, several first-year students penned an op-ed affirming, “This is our fight, too.”
A growing number of faculty members, some in precarious positions themselves, are standing up to support us. Several professors have either canceled or moved their classes off campus for the duration of the strike. (In a show of community solidarity, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, in Harlem, opened its doors for those classes.) Dozens of tenure-track faculty members — at Columbia and elsewhere — have donated to a fund to support striking graduate workers. Jenny Davidson, chair of the English and comparative-literature department, spoke at a rally in support of “a fair and impartial grievance procedure” to protect against predatory faculty. And academics from institutions around the world have postponed talks and other events at Columbia for the duration of the strike.
We have now been on strike for over a month. We want to ratify a strong contract before the end of the calendar year. Permanent faculty — especially those with tenure — are uniquely positioned to help us get there. Those with the privilege of institutional protection need to use it, now, to protect their more vulnerable colleagues. As Susan Witte, a professor in the School of Social Work, argued at a recent rally: “If tenure is consonant with faculty power and academic freedom — values that our university espouses — then our silence and complicity devalues the purpose of a tenure system altogether.”
So to all those supportive faculty who nevertheless feel pressure from the administration — to those who say that they need more information, more details, more context: Our invitation is always open. Now is the moment to cancel your classes and events, withhold final grades, and join us on the picket line.