The Graduate Workers’ Strike: What Undergraduate Students Should Know
Written by Bwog Staff
You’ve probably received an email from Provost Coatsworth about the “possible strike by student teaching and research assistants.” If you attend CC or GS, you also probably received a message from Deans Valentini and Rosen-Metsch about how the strike would affect classes. Perhaps you’ve heard directly from your TAs or research assistants about their plans to strike. Perhaps you’ve seen posters from either the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) or by Student-Worker Solidarity (SWS) about events taking place.
Even with all of this information floating around, it’s quite possible you still have questions about the upcoming graduate workers’ strike that will take place unless administration negotiates a contract before Tuesday morning – which currently seems unlikely. In order to clear things up, we here at Bwog thought that it would be useful to provide answers to some FAQ about the strike.
1. What are graduate workers demanding, specifically? Graduate workers will be striking because Columbia administration refuses to recognize the union they formed nearly a year and a half ago.
A brief rundown on the union’s history:
- In December 2016, Columbia graduate workers voted 72% to 28% to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers Local 2110, which already represents a number of workers on campus. This move was supported by both SGA and CCSC.
- According to GWC’s FAQ page, graduate workers hope to unionize to “ensure livable wages, adequate benefits, clear workload expectations, and consistent and transparent employment policies,” enhancing “our conditions and our work – and ultimately, Columbia.”
- After the vote was announced, the administration stated it wouldn’t recognize the union or negotiate with the elected bargaining committee, because it didn’t view graduate workers as traditional “workers” and worried about inconsistencies in election procedures.
- The administration hoped that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would also find that inconsistencies existed and therefore refuse to certify the union. This December, the Board rejected Columbia’s challenges in a 2-1 vote and certified the union.
- Despite the NLRB ruling, in January 2018, Provost Coatsworth announced in an email Columbia’s continued decision “not to engage in bargaining with union representatives and to seek review […] by a federal appellate court.”
- Union members allege Columbia is attempting to stall the process of unionization until President Trump can appoint new members to serve on the NLRB. Once he does this, it is likely that the new board will overturn the Obama-era decision that gave teaching and research assistants the right to collectively bargain. Therefore, this strike is being conducted in an attempt to pressure Columbia into bargaining immediately rather than waiting for the National Labor Relations Board to stop recognizing graduate workers as workers.
2. When will the strike take place? Assuming that Columbia refuses to bargain with the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110), the strike itself will be taking place from 10 am on Tuesday, April 24, until the end of the day on Monday, April 30 (the last day of classes for the Spring semester). During this time, striking graduate workers will not be doing any work at all, whether that means teaching classes, grading papers, supervising discussion sections, holding office hours or responding to emails. Picketing will take place on April 24 from 10 to 3 pm, and on April 25, 26, 27, and 30 from 11 am to 3 pm.
3. Why is the strike ending on April 30? Normally, a strike would be launched without a set end date. Some would argue that without an end date in place, the university would be far more likely to feel forced into recognizing the union. However, not all graduate workers felt comfortable launching into a strike without a set end date. In particular, many graduate workers in STEM fields, whose research and teaching responsibilities often overlap and who are often dependent on funding from professors, are worried that their careers could be threatened if they were to take part in a strike of indefinite length. Because graduate workers in STEM fields make up a significant percentage of the graduate workforce, and because it would be impossible to authorize a strike without their support, the strike committee thought that it would be best for the first strike to be launched with an end date already set.
4. Does this mean there will be a longer strike in the fall? Quite possibly. The graduate workers wrote in their strike announcement post that “if Columbia continues to refuse to bargain, they should expect us to strike again.” It is widely expected that in the instance that Columbia still refuses to recognize the union following this strike, the graduate workers will hold another strike authorization vote at the beginning of next semester. If another strike is authorized, we can expect it to begin sometime in the middle of the semester, and there might be no predetermined end date.
5. What is a “picket line”? What does “crossing the picket line” mean? The “picket line” can refer literally to the physical picket line of protesters, or metaphorically to the strike as a whole. When one “crosses the picket line,” one ignores the strike that is taking place and continues going about one’s work as usual. In this situation, the phrase would normally apply to graduate workers who choose to continue working despite the fact that the union that represents them is on strike. However, it could be argued that professors who continue to teach and students who continue to attend classes during the strike are also “crossing the picket line,” although they aren’t members of the union and aren’t doing the work of graduate students. Some professors have attempted to subvert the symbolism “crossing the picket line” by instead teaching at an off-campus site or via video conference in order to respect the strike without affecting their classes.
6. Where will the picket line be? Will it be considered crossing the picket line if I go to any of my classes during the strike? Or only if I physically cross the picket line? The picket line will be on College Walk this Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and next Monday. This Thursday, it will take place at the Columbia University Medical Center. Though it will be possible to avoid the picket line in order to get to class during the strike, attending any class on campus that depends upon the labor of graduate workers between April 24 and 30 would be considered “crossing the picket line,” regardless of whether or not you physically cross the line in order to get there.
7. If I want to support the graduate workers, how do I do so? According to union supporters, the best way for undergraduates to show solidarity for graduate student unionization would be physically showing up at the picket line. GWC and SWS encourage supporters to make signs, wear costumes, and bring noisemakers and instruments.
8. What do I do if I want to show solidarity but can’t miss my classes? SWS encourages supporters (and their tuition-paying parents or guardians) to call President Bollinger at (212) 854-9970 and Provost Coatsworth at (212) 854-2404 and demand that they recognize the graduate workers’ union. They point out that striking and calling serve a similar purpose in pressuring the administration to comply with federal labor law.
9. How will the strike affect undergraduates? If you’re in a class that is taught by a graduate student, that class will almost certainly be cancelled. If you’re in a class in which assignments are graded by graduate workers, assignments will almost certainly not be graded. If you’re in a class taught by a professor who is sympathetic to the cause, that class will possibly either be cancelled or moved to an off-campus location.
10. What do I do if my professor hasn’t cancelled class or contacted me about the strike? Email them and ask whether things will be proceeding normally. If they are, make up your own mind about whether you’d like to skip class in solidarity with striking graduate workers.
11. Will undergraduates be harmed by the strike? The strike may be disruptive in the short term, but the union argues that in the long term, all students at Columbia, including undergraduate students, will benefit. According to unionization supporters, the ongoing poor working conditions graduate workers face pose a greater threat to undergraduates’ ability to learn than a week-long strike. SWS states that “teaching conditions are learning conditions,” and that graduate workers are organizing around a number of issues that directly affect undergraduates like sexual harassment, payroll backlog, and rising housing and living costs.
12. Am I really being forced to go to classes that are being held off-campus? That’s up to your individual professor. If part of your grade is dependent on participation, GWC and SWS would recommend attending. If not, union supporters urge undergraduate students to show up at the picket line instead.
13. Can graduate workers hold classes off-campus and still take part in the strike? No. Federal labor law protects striking workers from retaliation by employers, but it doesn’t protect those who engage in a partial strike. If a graduate worker were to refuse to hold classes on campus but organized classes or discussion sections that would take place off campus, this would be considered a partial strike, and that graduate worker would be vulnerable to retaliation by the Columbia administration.
14. Will this strike affect Barnard students? If any of your classes depend on the labor of a graduate worker employed by Columbia University, you will be affected, regardless of which undergraduate school you attend. It should be noted, though, that Barnard’s campus is not being picketed.
15. What’s happening with undergrad teaching assistants? The NLRB does consider undergraduate teaching assistants to have the same rights as graduate workers. In other words, they are also represented by GWC-UAW Local 2110, and, if they wish to, they have the ability to strike without fear of repercussion.
16. Will all graduate workers be striking? The graduate workers’ union hopes that all teaching and research assistants will strike. This, of course, is impossible to guarantee; some graduate workers may feel that it is absolutely necessary to cross the picket line and go about business as usual. Considering the fact that 93% of graduate workers voted to authorize the strike, though, it can be reasonably expected that a vast majority will be striking.
17. Is it rude to ask my graduate instructor if they’re striking? No. Regardless of whether your graduate instructor is supportive of the strike, these conversations are important ones to have. Besides, if this person is teaching classes and grading assignments, you deserve to know whether your schedule will be altered as a result of the strike. Feel free to speak openly about the strike with your instructors. Furthermore, if they do plan on striking, they might be happy to talk through the political implications of the strike with undergraduates.
If you still have questions that remain unanswered, Student-Worker Solidarity will be hosting a teach-in titled “Graduate Workers’ Strike: What You Need To Know” tonight at 7:00 p.m. in Mathematics 520 and will be happy to provide answers to any lingering questions that you may still have.
Totally sweet banner pic via Student-Worker Solidarity