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At the Columbia University Strike

Graduate students unite as the administration aligns itself with Trump

If you find yourself at Columbia University at the right time of year—late summer, early fall—you’ll notice the exquisite grass. Every year about a month before commencement, Columbia covers the grass with a floor of artificial turf, chairs, and tents, for the various graduation ceremonies. After commencement, the grass is dead. Workers tear it up and replace it with fresh sod. This annual renovation of South Field, in front of Butler Library, makes bare soil and tractors a common sight in summer. The university is farming pure ostentation, and the days of commencement and arrival are its most brazen displays. In time, you understand that this flux is by design—a constant cycle, not a one-time refurbishment. Come the first cold snap, the school covers everything with a white tarp—sometimes hard to tell apart from snow, once the snows have come. It was a long winter.

How does the university’s hiring of the anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose fit in with its “basic mission”?

On Tuesday afternoon, I took a break from walking the picket line and sat on a bench with James White, an organizer from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, and a former chaplain who worked with the Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia. We discussed St. Mary’s activism around the displacement caused by Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus a half mile away, but it was hard to ignore the work going on right next to us, and I asked White what he thought about it. “I met the guy who designs the landscaping once,” he said, and recalled that the man had quoted an obscene figure for the landscaping budget. The dissonance of the strikers in front of us and the preparations going on behind us stayed with me for the first few days of the strike. On Wednesday, in the rain, the workers wore bright yellow jumpsuits, and by the end of the day, the white graduation tents were rising.

The Columbia graduate student strike began on Tuesday, April 24, one day after the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the 1968 occupation of Columbia University led by the Student Afro-American Society and Students for a Democratic Society. The 1968 revolt was prompted by the university’s plan to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, with a segregated entrance for Harlem residents. As a result of the occupation, the gym was never built, and Columbia now commemorates the anniversary with official events.

The present strike began with a vote and a number: 1,968 members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC)—UAW Local 2110 participated in the strike authorization vote, 93 percent of whom were in favor, a tally higher than the number who voted for unionization to begin with, back in December 2016. As Rosalie Ray, a member of the GWC’s bargaining committee and a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, told me, “Columbia has given us no other choice than to go on strike.” Unless Columbia decides to bargain, the strike will last through the entire last week of classes this semester, until April 30. But, according to Ray, “At any moment Columbia could sit down at the table, and we would stop striking. If they wanted to call us off, they could.” The university administration’s history of intransigence makes this an unlikely prospect this week.

I also spoke with Tania Bhattacharyya, another member of the bargaining committee and a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, who was, all told, optimistic about the strike’s prospects. “If the work stoppage is serious, and they see all of the support that we have, they will bargain—the question is when.” I had seen Bhattacharyya address the crowd at the union’s largest pre-strike rally, organized by the International Student Working Group and held in response to President Trump’s travel ban in January of last year, just as the university’s strategy of waiting for the assistance of Trump appointees became clear, and she was frequently on the bullhorn Tuesday as well. When I asked her about the speech, she reminded me, “Everything that affects everybody just affects international students harder.”

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, a free speech scholar, has staked out a hypocritical position on Trump. On January 29 of last year, not long after the first Trump travel ban, Bollinger sounded the alarm in an email to everyone on campus:

With the executive order issued by President Trump barring admission to the United States of Syrian refugees and imposing a 90-day ban on all immigrant and nonimmigrant entry from seven Muslim-majority nations, the fear so many have had about federal policies being changed in ways that could affect our community has become disturbingly real.

Fair enough, but later in the email Bollinger made a point that rings hollow, especially given his administration’s continued anti-union campaign:

As I have said on many occasions, it is critically important that the University, as such, not take stands on ideological or political issues. Yet it is also true that the University, as an institution in the society, must step forward to object when policies and state action conflict with its fundamental values, and especially when they bespeak purposes and a mentality that are at odds with our basic mission. This is such a case.

How does the university’s hiring of the anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose fit in with its “basic mission”?

On Wednesday, I met up with a friend who had gone to get a cavity filled before joining the picket line for the day—with a 10 percent discount, he paid $300. (The next day, I heard the chant “Where’s my fucking dental?” during a rally in front of Alma Mater and Low Library. Adequate dental coverage was one of the union’s early demands, before the vote in 2016.) The pickets had shifted from the first day and now reached across the two largest entrances to Columbia’s campus, on Broadway and on Amsterdam Avenue. It had been raining, but if anything the weather had a cheering effect on strikers. The picket lines were a demonstration of a cooperative ethos, one that runs counter to the rampant competitiveness often found at Ivy League universities.

By Thursday, the third day of the strike, it was sunny again, and the picket line began circling Low Library, the administrative center of Columbia. There, outside of the president’s offices, I heard a chant I hadn’t heard before: “Hey, hey / Ho, ho / Bollinger has got to go!” Meanwhile, Gail Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President, spoke and voiced her support for the strike.

Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland, was scheduled to appear inside at 1 p.m., at an event with David Madigan, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I watched as he posed for pictures with GWC organizers before entering the building. Outside, a speaker announced that President Higgins expressed solidarity, and pledged to mention the strike in his remarks.

How did we get here? In August 2016, after nearly two years of organizing by the Graduate Workers of Columbia, the National Labor Relations Board overruled its Bush-era Brown decision, and declared that student assistants at private universities—at Columbia and elsewhere—qualified as workers with the right to form unions under the National Labor Relations Act. (At a rally on Thursday, a graduate worker and lab technician with a bullhorn described how he knew he was a worker: he was doing exactly the same work as he had been before becoming a graduate student.)

In the December 2016 election at Columbia, 72 percent of voters favored GWC representation. After more than a year of appeals by the university, the National Labor Relations Board certified the union, part of UAW Local 2110, on December 16, 2017. The official tally was 1,602—623, not counting challenged ballots. (I was one of those 1,602, and I did a bit of volunteering for the union leading up to and following the vote, among many others who did much more.)

But in the midst of all this, Donald Trump won the presidential election—and with his presidency came the specter of new, anti-union members of the NLRB. Columbia was waiting the union out in hopes of yet another reversal. In 2017, Trump appointed new members to the NLRB, which now comprises a Republican majority. In response, graduate students at schools including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Yale University recently withdrew their petitions to the NLRB, in order to prevent the board from having an opportunity to reverse the 2016 Columbia decision, but graduate workers at Columbia were able to press on in part because of a recusal by one of the board members, Marvin E. Kaplan, whose wife works at the university.

Then, on January 30, Columbia’s provost, John Coatsworth, President Lee Bollinger’s bad cop, announced that the university wouldn’t bargain with the union. Considering that the NLRB certified its election in December, the GWC has asserted that, by not bargaining, Columbia is now breaking the law. In his message, Coatsworth said the university would bring their case to a federal appellate court, and Columbia is now waiting for the union to file an unfair labor practice complaint in order to gain access to the federal court system.

Speaking to a crowd, at one point Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman thanked Lee Bollinger “for running such a weak anti-union campaign.”

Downtown, though, New York University agreed to bargain with another member of UAW Local 2110, Graduate Student Organizing Committee, and they have had a contract since 2015, at the time the only such agreement with a private university in the United States. Shelly Ronen, a former member of GSOC’s bargaining committee, enumerated to me some of the benefits of union membership for graduate workers: “We won massive wage raises especially for the lowest paid workers, benefit improvements including 90 percent healthcare coverage, childcare, and free dental.” Ronen also told me, over email, “A huge part of our successful bargaining was carefully and systematically preparing our workers to strike.”

On the picket lines I saw familiar faces. I walked along the pickets with friends and former classmates, alternately chanting, talking about the strike, and catching up. (I was a teaching fellow at Columbia during the last academic year, and graduated in October.) I heard from friends who had gone to professors’ apartments off-campus for final strike-friendly gatherings, which in one case even included the impromptu singing of union songs. There were tambourines and pots and pans, signs (“Welcome to Trump University,” “Pro-union = Anti-sexual harassment”), and chants (“Union is a right! / Fight, fight, fight!”). Speaking to a crowd, at one point Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, a graduate student in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, thanked Lee Bollinger “for running such a weak anti-union campaign.” Over the course of the week, I heard the verses of “Solidarity Forever” more than once. On Wednesday, there was an appearance by Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers, who from under an umbrella led the crowd in chanting, “Yes we can!” and “¡Sí se puede!”

There was other activity on campus, too. Over the weekend, a group of activists called 24/7 Columbia occupied part of Lerner Hall and called for round-the-clock access to health care, to a rape crisis center, and to Butler Library, among other demands. On Wednesday, the Liberation Coalition led a tour around campus, which I followed, and which at one point intersected with another, normal campus tour.

After the Liberation Coalition’s tour, I spoke with Susan Bernofsky, a professor in the Writing Program at the School of the Arts. “I support the students’ forming a union,” Bernofsky said. “The vote was legal, and whether or not we think of graduate student workers as more students or more workers, the fact is that they voted legally to form a union, and this decision was backed up by the National Labor Relations Board, and therefore I strongly support the union that they voted to form. And as far as I have seen there is widespread support for the union among Columbia faculty members.”

Later I corresponded over email with Emily Moncata, a sophomore at Barnard College and an organizer with Student-Worker Solidarity. She wrote, “Graduate workers dedicate so much time and labor to this university and to students, and I think it’s appalling how little the Columbia administration values their work. As students, I think it’s our responsibility to stand in solidarity with all workers on this campus, and join their fight for a more equitable workplace free from sexual harassment and discrimination, low wages, late pay, and inadequate healthcare.”

On Tuesday, the picket line stretched the length of College Walk, across the middle of Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights. Strikers chanted: “What’s disgusting? / Union busting!” “Get up, get down! / New York is a union town!” Sometimes the chants changed with the weather, as with Wednesday’s “Be it rain, be it shine / I will fight for what is mine!” Maybe the Columbia administration should consider changing, too, and find common cause with its students in opposition to Donald Trump.