The Student Workers of Columbia have begun an indefinite strike as leverage for contract negotiations with the University, ceasing all labor and bringing courses to a halt.

Today, the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) are going on strike to secure a contract agreement after years of bargaining. The core demands of the SWC throughout negotiations have been grievance and neutral arbitration for workplace discrimination and harassment; greater compensation for all student workers, including those who work on an hourly basis; expanded healthcare coverage, including vision and dental; and University recognition of all members of the SWC as part of the bargaining unit. During the period of the strike, striking student workers will halt all labor, including teaching, research, and grading. There is no set deadline for the strike to end. While Columbia and SWC communications sent out over Fall Break indicate that progress has been made in negotiations, including new Columbia counter-proposals to the SWC’s demands, points of contention remain.

On April 2, the Bargaining Committee of the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) mutually agreed with Columbia University to pause what had been a two-and-a-half week strike, the largest in Columbia’s history, in exchange for third-party mediation in hopes of achieving a contract. However, this decision went against the wishes of many “rank and file” (non-Bargaining Committee) members of the Union, and the tentative contract agreement that resulted was rejected. Following this sign of lost confidence in the April 2021 Bargaining Committee, the Union went through significant changes over the summer in advance for the fall semester, the first consistent period of in-person instruction for a year and a half. Along with a name change to the Student Workers of Columbia, a new Bargaining Committee, and new bylaws encouraging greater involvement of the rank-and-file, most members of the Union began working in the fall with a “calmer pulse,” as an anonymous rank and file member of the Union told Bwog. This same member stated that, due to the reorganization that took place during the summer, “people seem less stressed out about whether or not the Bargaining Committee is representing their interests at the table”—a stark contrast to the mood of many Union members after the conclusion of last spring’s strike.

The possibility of another strike became more tangible when the SWC revealed on September 30 that the strike authorization vote resulted in an overwhelming majority in favor of giving the Bargaining Committee permission to call a strike. The results of this vote come after rising tensions between the Union and the University over the summer due to stipend changes and the deadlock stemming from the University’s desire to have closed bargaining, despite the fact that Union bylaws necessitated the Bargaining Committee only agree to open bargaining. The Bargaining Committee also revealed new demands for this round of contract negotiations. Among these new demands are the prohibition of NYPD or ICE presences on campus, no-questions-asked funding for adviser transfers, and increased childcare hours and funding. The demand for a significantly reduced NYPD and ICE presence on campus follows a similar demand by NYU’s graduate student union (GSOC-UAW) during their strike last spring. In the tentative contract agreement GSOC-UAW reached with NYU after their strike, one noted change is that NYU must now “[m]andate sanctuary protections from ICE and other government agencies for ALL NYU community members,” but regarding the NYPD, NYU must only “[r]ecognize NYPD presence on campus as a health and safety issue.”

Solidarity And Organizing Leading Up To The Strike

On October 20, the SWC revealed that their strike deadline (the day by which, barring productive contract negotiations with Columbia, they would call a strike) would be November 3. In a statement made prior to the October 27 walkout, SWC Bargaining Committee member Lilian Coie told Bwog with regard to Columbia and the SWC’s bargaining sessions: “We have had 81 sessions of negotiation—we have had plenty of time […] it is clear that more time is not what is needed at the table to reach an agreement.” According to Coie, the bargaining session held after the announcement of the strike deadline was the most productive “because [Columbia] now [has] an incentive to negotiate”—the incentive being the looming threat of a strike. 

Notably, Harvard’s graduate student Union (HGSU-UAW) announced a week prior to the SWC that they planned on going on a three-day strike starting October 27. The HGSU-UAW and the SWC not only project solidarity on social media but communicate with each other about Union activity. Coie stated to Bwog, “We have been discussing strike strategy with Harvard since we voted down our last tentative agreement… their strike [began] October 27, and the strong solidarity between our units inspired us to do a walkout that same Wednesday to show the unity between our campuses. We are really looking forward to see what they win at the table ahead of their strike, because it will likely help us win more in our negotiations as well.” These sentiments of inter-university solidarity and the significance of collective action support the running themes that every Union member interviewed by Bwog expressed as fundamentally important to their larger cause.

One week after the announcement of the strike deadline on October 27 and in solidarity with the beginning of the HGSU-UAW’s strike, the SWC held a walkout and rally. This walkout, which many striking graduate students interrupted their classes to bring their undergraduate students to, began with speeches from Union members wherein the speakers narrated Columbia’s behavior during the prolonged period of contract negotiations to the audience. Throughout the event and its aftermath, the crowd could be heard booing, cheering, and doing call-and-response chants with the speakers.

Shortly after the speeches concluded, the crowd walked to Schermerhorn Hall with a few members descending into President Bollinger’s 4:10 pm class “Freedom of Speech and Press” chanting “fuck you, PrezBo” and “no contract, no work.” The crowd then went to President Bollinger’s house, where they protested for about twenty minutes before coming back to Low Steps and dispersing. Charlie Steinman, a history PhD student who helped organize the walkout, stated to Bwog that the event was meant to “show [the SWC’s] teeth” and that the significant turnout made the rally “an even greater success than we had anticipated.” Jackson Miller, one of the speakers and a member of the Bargaining Committee, echoed the sentiment that the walkout was a success and told Bwog, “[the walkout] might give the University a little spook, but it’s doubtful it was enough to spur action. To get them really quaking in their boots, we must withhold our labor and strike.”

Columbia’s Responses To SWC Activity

Although Columbia did not directly acknowledge the Union’s role in orchestrating the walkout, Dennis A. Mitchell, who serves as Executive Vice President for University Life, Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, and Professor of Dental Medicine at CUMC, sent an email to all students about the disruption of President Bollinger’s class. Within the email, Mitchell noted, “disrupting a class—any class—undermines one of our core University values—freedom of expression.” Subsequently, in a Tweet by the official @SW_Columbia Twitter account, the Union responded, “[w]e invite President Bollinger to join us and exchange views on the mistreatment of student workers in the time, manner, and place of his choosing.” 

Another document indicating Columbia’s response to the current Union activity is an email titled “Contingency Planning” from Columbia Arts & Sciences Dean of Academic Planning and Governance Dr. Rose Razaghian to faculty and instructors, sent in the days before the October 27 walkout. In this email, Dr. Razaghian requests that these instructors make contingency plans to sustain undergraduate learning throughout the strike:

The SWC argues that by encouraging this contingency planning, Columbia is asking non-student instructors to scab for graduate students during the strike; in essence, they are requesting that these non-student worker instructors replace the graduate students’ withheld labor to undermine the power of the strike. As German PhD student Chloe Vaughn expressed during her speech at the walkout, the Union takes issue with this messaging and contingency planning.

Recently, Columbia has sent guidance to faculty, students, and parents about what they should expect in the event of a strike, as well as information about the current state of bargaining. The University has told faculty members that while they cannot question student employees about strike-related plans, they may tell their student employees that “the University and the Union negotiated a full and fair Agreement” last year and the Union then decided “to start over with more costly proposals, delaying resolution and causing the current uncertainty.” The University also noted that the student experience “suffers” in consequence of the strike. The same document details what faculty members are not allowed to say or do during the strike in order to protect the rights of strikers. Threats, interrogations, and spying are among the prohibited behaviors, as well as what Columbia describes as “[lingering] near or [going] through the picket line unnecessarily or repeatedly.”

On November 1, Provost Mary C. Boyce sent an email to the Columbia community detailing Columbia’s current offer to the SWC, which included concessions to some demands but not all, as elaborated in our coverage. She concluded the email by reaffirming Columbia’s “commitment to ensure that all Columbia students continue to make academic progress throughout the fall term” and noting the significance of the university’s contingency planning. Further information about the events of the negotiations, including a “Roundup of Bargaining Sessions to Date,” has been posted on Columbia’s Graduate Student Unionization page. An email sent very shortly after by Dean of Columbia College James J. Valentini and Dean of the School of General Studies Lisa Rosen-Metsch served to provide instructions to undergraduate students about what to do in the event of a strike. The email tells undergraduates to attend class and submit assignments as usual, as “[a]bsences from class for strike-related reasons will not be considered excused.” The Deans also instruct students whose graduate student instructors do not come to class and do not communicate about class cancellations to contact the relevant academic department for guidance, claiming that “any information that you share regarding your classes will remain confidential and be used only to help you continue to make academic progress, not to retaliate against any instructor who may choose to strike.” The full text of this email can be found at the bottom of this post.

Student Awareness And Undergraduate Support

While news of the strike has rocked much of Columbia’s community and reached audiences far wider than that (such as viewers of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC), many undergraduate and graduate students are still unaware of or confused about the SWC’s organizing. André Pettman, a fourth-year PhD student in the French Department who is the union representative for his department, told Bwog that when he talked to his undergraduate students about the strike, “a couple of them… were shocked” that he was a graduate student as well as an instructor. This confusion on the part of undergraduate students was also apparent during the October 27 rally. Bwog spoke to one CC sophomore who was unaware of the impending strike until the day before, after being informed by a former graduate student instructor. This lack of awareness reached even graduate students, one of whom came up to a Bwog staffer during the walkout to ask questions about the event and the strike. According to Pettman, “a lot of the work the Union does is trying to get people aware in the departments” that the Union exists.

Despite the reality that some swaths of students are not aware of the Union’s activities, the undergraduate stance towards the SWC is crucial, in the opinion of Pettman, “because if undergrads are against… what’s going on, that’s going to have a bigger sway than anything on what’s happening.” In attempts to galvanize undergraduate supporters into action, striking members of the Union have been encouraging their undergraduate students to get involved through phone banking, emailing, and picketing. At more general Union events, members of the SWC hand out flyers such as the one pictured below that detail ways undergraduates can help the SWC’s cause. Undergraduate supporters also have a group chat wherein they discuss ways they can help striking graduate students—for example, through donating their excess meal swipes. This strong undergraduate support marks a different mood among Union members, Pettman told Bwog: “Last year, we were on the picket line on essentially an empty campus. Even things like [the October 27 walkout] are so starkly removed from what it was last semester, when our voices were echoing off empty buildings.” The virtual nature of the previous strike’s circumstances precluded much meaningful undergraduate involvement; this year’s in-person events provide more avenues for sympathetic undergraduates to support the SWC.

A poster providing SWC solidarity resources to undergraduates, handed out at the October 27 walkout.

Looking Ahead

As of this article’s publication, the second-to-last update posted by the SWC contains information about the upcoming strike. As of Wednesday, November 3, all striking members of the Union have ceased any paid work, and many have joined the picket line at College Walk. Anyone sympathetic to the cause is welcome to join. The latest update posted to the SWC’s website restates information speakers shared during the October 27 walkout. During the bargaining sessions that followed the announcement of the strike deadline, Columbia shared changes to their proposals, including a 50 cent increase in hourly raises and a $25,000 increase in the proposed health care fund. These changes marked what the SWC called Columbia’s “first step away” from the Tentative Agreement that was rejected by the Union in the spring.

While the SWC has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to fight for a satisfactory contract, many graduate student workers are far from excited about the prospect of having to strike for weeks. As one anonymous union member and student instructor told Bwog that, aside from the financial burdens a prolonged strike may pose for striking workers, many student instructors are disappointed at the prospect of not being able to teach. When asked to describe the general feeling among members of the SWC in advance of the strike, this same instructor stated: “I think that people are happy to be back at work, to be working in person again, to be doing this work that means so much to all of us. So do people want to go on strike? No, but the ball is in Columbia’s court.”

Images via Vicky Melkonyan and Charlie Bonkowsky

Lillian Rountree contributed to reporting.

Email sent from Columbia College Dean Valentini and General Studies Dean Rosen-Metsch to the students of CC and GS at 5:47 pm on Monday, November 1:

Dear students of Columbia College and Columbia GS,

You may have heard that the Student Workers of Columbia-UAW may hold a strike beginning on Wednesday, November 3, as part of their ongoing negotiations with the University. We write to share answers to questions you may have about how this may impact your coursework:

What should I do while the graduate students are on strike?

The work of the University will continue throughout any strike that may happen, so you should plan to attend classes as usual next week. Please monitor your Columbia email inbox closely for important communications from your instructors.

Your education is the foremost concern of our schools, and we want to ensure that you continue your academic progress and achieve the objectives of your courses. Please note that you are expected to attend classes as usual, and you should continue to keep up with the schedule of assignments for each of your classes.

What if one of my classes is taught by a graduate student?

If a strike is called, it is up to each individual graduate student to decide whether they will participate in the strike, so unless you receive explicit instructions from your instructor that a class meeting is canceled, please attend your class at the usual time.

If you attend a class and find that the instructor is not there and you have not received any communication from them, please contact the relevant academic department for further information or instructions. If you are not sure of the home department of the course, please look on the course page in the online Directory of Classes; the home department is listed in the middle of the course page. You can then contact the department directly.

The home department of the Core Curriculum courses (including Art Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Literature Humanities, Music Humanities, and University Writing) is the Center for the Core Curriculum.

We recognize the graduate students’ right to strike, and any information that you share regarding your classes will remain confidential and be used only to help you continue to make academic progress, not to retaliate against any instructor who may choose to strike.

If you have concerns about the effect of canceled classes on your coursework, please contact your advising dean so that we can understand your particular situation and try to help in whatever ways we can. While it isn’t possible to anticipate every situation that may arise, we are ready to work with faculty and students to resolve any issues.

What if I want to support the graduate students in their strike?

You may be interested in the issues being negotiated between the student workers and the University, and you should feel free to discuss these issues with graduate students, with faculty and with one another. Please remember, though, that you must fulfill your responsibilities as a student, including attending class and submitting required academic work. Absences from class for strike-related reasons will not be considered excused.

We believe the University is working in good faith to negotiate a successful agreement with the student workers. Yet we understand that a strike of this kind may be disruptive to the academic experience of some of our students, and we understand your frustration. We hope that the ongoing negotiations will render a strike unnecessary. In the meantime, we are in ongoing discussions with our partners throughout the University to continue our contingency planning.

We will continue to update you about these matters as the situation evolves so please continue to check your Columbia emails regularly. If you have questions, contact your advising dean. We are sorry that on top of an already challenging year, this potential strike adds yet another layer of complexity.


James J. Valentini

Dean of Columbia College and Vice President of Undergraduate Education

Lisa Rosen-Metsch

Dean of Columbia University School of General Studies