Student Panel Discusses How Graduate Students Can Fight For Dignity
Written by Abby Rubel
Last night, the Graduate Workers of Columbia Union, Student-Worker Solidarity, and the International Socialist Organization held a panel in Hamilton to discuss why a graduate student union is necessary. Senior Staffer Abby Rubel brings you the details.
The night’s discussion opened with brief comments from the moderator, Fainan Lakha (CC ’17). She focused on the timeliness of the panel, coming as it did a few days before the union votes to authorize a strike and on the heels of the recent teachers strike in West Virginia. She also touched upon a common theme of the evening—that the struggle at Columbia will have implications across the country.
The panelists then gave their opening remarks. Tania Bhattacharyya, a PhD candidate in History at Columbia and member of the union’s bargaining committee, spoke first. She began by explaining how the conversation around unionization has changed in the two years she’s been organizing. At first, she was “convincing people to think of themselves as workers,” but now people are much more comfortable with the idea of a union. She also discussed how the “narrative of privilege” Columbia creates—telling students that they’re lucky to be at such a prestigious place—makes it easier for the administration to rugsweep their mistreatment of students, especially graduate student workers. “No matter how privileged you are, our labor is still exploited,” she said.
Meghan Brophy (BC ’20) and a member of Student-Worker Solidarity was next to speak. She emphasized the stake undergraduates had in the graduate students’ struggle because “teaching conditions are learning conditions.” She also decried the university’s “divide and conquer” strategy and encouraged students to talk to each other to overcome it.
Next up was Natasha Raheja, a PhD candidate at NYU who was on the bargaining committee of NYU’s graduate student union from 2014-2015. She discussed some lessons she had learned from her bargaining committee experience, including the need to prepare people to actually strike rather than seeing the authorization vote as an end unto itself. Because they “didn’t have the capacity to do an indefinite strike,” she said, the bargaining committee was forced to accept the deal NYU offered them the night before the strike began.
Finally, Columbia graduate student and International Socialist Organization member Alex Ferrena spoke. He focused on the “not-so-secret side of Columbia”—its gentrification of Harlem, mishandling of sexual assault cases, and mistreatment of graduate students. “Irresponsible would be an understatement,” he said. “Columbia has been actively malicious.” He then discussed the national importance of the struggle and ended by suggesting that the strike, if authorized, be open-ended and during finals to increase pressure on the administration, though he also acknowledged that this strategy is risky.
Lakha then opened the floor to questions and discussion from the audience. Unfortunately, she did not allow the panelists to address the questions as they came up, which created some confusion and didn’t allow for much in the way of answers.
One concern was the difference in striking power between research assistants, who bring large sums of money into the university but aren’t integral to the day-to-day functioning of the university, and teacher’s assistants, who would have a more immediate impact if they stopped working.
Another common worry was that of retaliation by the university. Because the graduate workers union has been certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the union is “allowed to strike.” Bhattacharyya said that this certification makes a big difference in reassuring people that striking is okay as well as preventing Columbia from retaliating against a striking worker. However, she and others acknowledged that relying on the federal government is risky, especially given the capriciousness of the Trump administration. Several people also mentioned that the Columbia administration is confident because they know Trump’s government will be on their side.
Undergraduates expressing support was also a major thread. One audience member suggested that undergraduates could join Student-Worker Solidarity or use their influence as future alumni and donors. A physics graduate student also suggested that undergrads could talk to graduate students they know, especially instructors, and let them know that they support a strike. “Just say it,” he said. Brophy added that undergraduates should not cross any picket lines and could show support by simply wearing a button.
The panelists then made their closing remarks, although they primarily reiterated earlier points. Bhattacharyya spoke about the need to create “a new normal,” where graduate students don’t have to fight to be recognized as workers. Brophy mentioned Student-Worker Solidarity’s photo campaign, and Raheja stressed the importance of a multi-pronged union strategy. Ferrena concluded the evening with a comment that graduate students at Columbia are “fighting like the old timeys.”
Photo via the event’s Facebook page
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