On Monday, faculty gathered for a midday picket and rally while both the University and the Union expressed frustration at stagnant negotiations in the final full week of the Fall 2021 semester.
On Monday afternoon, Columbia faculty members walked out of their classrooms in a show of solidarity with the ongoing strike by the Student Workers of Columbia, joining Union members and students on a picket line spanning the entirety of Columbia’s College Walk. The rally was organized in collaboration with Columbia faculty members in response to a December 2 email from Columbia Vice President of Human Resources Daniel Driscoll, stating that striking student workers who did not return to work before December 10 may not be guaranteed a teaching position for the spring semester. Bwog obtained a screenshot of the email included below.
The protest began at 12:30 pm with a campus-wide walkout, followed by a rally at 1 pm, which featured speakers from both University faculty and Union leadership. One such speaker was Professor of English and Gender Studies Jack Halberstam. In a speech to walkout participants, Halberstam spoke of his experience attending a mediation session earlier this week, saying, “I saw reasonable, rational, smart, absolutely dedicated student workers trying to make a point, and I saw them dismissed time and again by the University counsel.” Faculty also leveled criticism directly against the University, with Halberstam asserting that faculty support is invaluable to the strike, stating “to faculty allies, I say this is our fight.”
Similarly, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Mana Kia gave a statement to Bwog in support of the strike, arguing “[The SWC is] asking for absolutely reasonable things; the University [has] the money, they just have different priorities. This is a research university, so students and student workers are central to their mission.”
Union members attending the rally expressed their gratitude for the faculty support, with union member Johannah King-Slutzky describing the rally in a statement to Bwog as “very inspiring to see the faculty show up for us this way.” However, King-Slutzky also expressed hope that faculty will “continue to walk the walk and talk the talk” by taking the suggested actions the SWC outlines to show support, such as canceling class and withholding grades if teaching positions for student strikers continue to be in jeopardy.
In his speech at Monday’s rally, Thomas Preston, a union member and sixth-year graduate student in the German department, stated that the SWC also plans to “shut down campus” on Wednesday, December 8. Tomorrow’s rally will be a collaborative effort with various organizations around New York City, including Nurses in Harlem and the Central Brooklyn DSA, as well as fellow local unions like Professional Staff Congress-CUNY and the News Guild. Posters from SWC’s social media indicate the rally will be all day, from 8 am to 6 pm.
The organized rally and walkout on Monday came mere hours after Columbia Provost Mary. C. Boyce sent an email to students outlining the recent negotiations between the University and the SWC during mediation, including the University’s most recent proposals concerning arbitration, stipends, healthcare, and childcare. In response, many graduate student workers took to social media to express their disagreement with Boyce’s framing, arguing that the Union has demonstrated a willingness to compromise and pointing out that Boyce herself has reportedly never attended a mediation session. The full text of the email can be found below.
As Boyce articulated in her email, on Wednesday, December 1, the University put forward an expanded proposal addressing the Union’s demand for neutral arbitration. In a statement on Monday afternoon, the SWC said the University’s most recent arbitration proposal is “closer” to a system they would consider accepting, but said they remain at what they called an “ideological difference” with the University concerning grievance and arbitration for Title IX cases in particular. In the email sent out Monday morning, Boyce highlighted the University’s proposed economic package concerning Union demands about stipends, childcare, and health care. Boyce claimed this new package would increase stipends for Ph.D. students, increase summer stipends, provide steady annual increases to the pay rate for hourly student workers, and provide “generous increases” to student support funds that cover out-of-pocket health costs, as well as expanded child care benefits.
Although mediation is ongoing, Boyce expressed frustration that the Union has not “moved significantly on any of the core issues on the table” since before the strike began, and claimed it has not offered any counter-proposals to the University’s new arbitration proposal, contradicting Union claims about the most recent mediation sessions. However, Boyce also expressed hope that an agreement between the University and the Union is “within reach,” claiming that a “significant majority” of Union members have elected to continue their work throughout the strike, despite statistics released by the SWC that suggest the majority of both striking and non-striking members support continuing the strike.
While the strike continues, Boyce emphasized that the University believes the impact of the strike on undergraduate students is relatively small, writing that most Columbia courses remain “uninterrupted.” However, Boyce also asserted that the University “must take action” to mitigate the strike’s interference with undergraduate education. In particular, Boyce expressed concern for students in courses taught entirely by Ph.D. students, calling it “deeply unfair” that students whose education was already impacted by COVID-19 may now have their courses interrupted by the strike. For students whose courses have been interrupted, Boyce assured that their respective departments will provide a “menu of options” to supplement affected coursework.
However, in a letter sent Monday to President Bollinger and Provost Boyce, the Columbia College Student Council took direct issue with the claim that undergraduate education has gone largely uninterrupted, outlining a number of concerns about the negative impact of the strike on undergraduate students. The letter from CCSC made it clear that the council does not condemn the striking student workers, but instead places the full responsibility of ensuring students experience “a quality education and a robust campus life” on Columbia’s administration. According to the letter, the council believes that the University has failed to meet student expectations and must take immediate action to remedy the issues. The letter is included in full below.
Six weeks into the strike, the blame for its disruption has been increasingly assigned to the University. The SWC published a letter supposedly from a parent of an undergraduate “dismayed by Columbia’s actions regarding union demands” and the lack of communication with affected students. Beyond parental, undergraduate, and graduate disappointment, as the Monday rally shows, faculty are also increasingly coming out in public support of the SWC. During Monday’s rally, Bwog had the opportunity to speak to several faculty members, including Gil Anidjar, Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. When asked to give a brief statement on his reason for attending the rally, Anidjar had a direct message for Columbia: “The University should cede to [SWC] demands. Is that brief enough for you?”
Victoria Melkonyan, Kyle Murray, and Charlie Bonkowsky contributed to reporting.
Image via Charlie Bonkowsky
Email from Provost Mary C. Boyce sent out to students on Monday, December 6 at 9:18 am:
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,
I am writing to update you on developments related to ongoing negotiations between the University and Student Workers of Columbia-UAW, as well as on the SWC-UAW strike.
We are now engaged in mediation with our student workers, with the assistance of the mediator nominated by SWC-UAW. On Wednesday, we put forward a proposal on arbitration that defined a range of situations where grievances may be brought before a third party. This was accompanied by a proposal on recognition, which defines the set of students included in the bargaining unit. Additionally, during more than ten hours of mediation on Friday and Sunday we offered further enhancements on arbitration and on child care. Our proposal would now make arbitration available on grounds that go far beyond the remedies available in the contract approved overwhelmingly last week by Harvard’s graduate student union. Our proposal on the scope of the bargaining unit is also significantly more expansive than the Harvard union’s bargaining unit.
During these sessions, the Union has not offered counterproposals that address the substance of these provisions. Indeed, since the resumption of negotiations in September, SWC-UAW has not moved significantly on any of the core issues on the table. We are still waiting for the Union to join us in working to close the gap between our positions.
We are eager to continue negotiating around the economic package that we have offered, which addresses benefits such as stipends, health care, and child care. The University has already offered increases to stipends for PhD students in all of their fellowship years, whether they are teaching or not. We have offered increases in summer stipends, and for student workers who are paid hourly, we have offered steady, yearly increases to the pay rate. We also have offered generous increases to support funds available to students to cover out-of-pocket health costs, along with additional child care benefits.
All of these enhancements would take effect immediately upon ratification, and cover all PhD students across campus as well as a broad range of master’s and undergraduate students. Details of our current proposal are available online.
Given that the significant majority of the SWC-UAW members continue to carry out their teaching and research work and are not on strike, we believe that a potential agreement is within reach. While we are committed to a constructive mediation process with the goal of reaching agreement as soon as possible, it is possible that the strike, now five weeks old, may extend through the end of the fall term. Most classes at Columbia continue uninterrupted by the strike. However, we recognize the impact of the strike on the educational experience of some of our students, particularly those course sections where the instructor is a doctoral candidate, as is the case with a number of sections in the undergraduate curriculum. We must take action to ensure that these students can advance their education in the least intrusive manner possible. In light of the disruption of COVID, it is deeply unfair that some of our students—and particularly those who are new to our campus community—have had their coursework interrupted.
The University is committed to ensuring that our students receive the outstanding education they came to Columbia to pursue. I am working diligently with our deans to deliver on that vital promise. To those students who have a course led by an instructor of record who is striking, their respective schools will be providing a menu of options that are responsive to their needs in content and timing. Schools will be communicating about this directly with the students impacted.
I encourage everyone to read our FAQs, which cover a broad range of issues: from student compensation and cost of living, to mediation and bargaining session summaries. We will continue to update you as negotiations unfold.
Mary C. Boyce
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Statement from Columbia College Student Council sent to President Lee Bollinger and Provost Mary Boyce on the SWC Strike on Sunday, December 5, 2021:
To President Lee Bollinger and Provost Mary Boyce:
For the past five weeks, Columbia College undergraduates have been deprived of our academic experience. The University has failed to meet its contractual obligations to the Columbia College student body. Students make the choice to attend Columbia. We pay tuition with the expectation of a quality education and a robust campus life. We have received neither. Our grievance here is not with SWC, as it is the sole responsibility of the University to provide this experience for undergraduates. We therefore call on the University to immediately address the following issues:
Undergraduate students have not received the education that they were promised.
- The Core Curriculum is the hallmark of the Columbia College academic experience, but it has not been provided. The majority of Core sections have not met since November 3rd.
- In addition, many non-Core courses have not been meeting since November 3rd.
- Students have not had access to discussion sections and recitations, preventing them from fully engaging with course material.
- Students have not had access to office hours, depriving them of crucial resources for academic success and exacerbating existing educational inequities among the student body.
Undergraduate student life is suffering. The University has not addressed this gap.
- With such a large number of sections on strike, Masterpieces of Western Literature and Contemporary Civilizations have no longer been the communal experiences they are advertised to be.
- The University’s failure to fulfill its duties has jeopardized undergraduate traditions. Tree Lighting, a tradition normally filled with peace, joy, and community, was overshadowed by the University’s failure to fulfill its contractual duties. Student a cappella groups facilitated conversations with SWC and made the decision to express solidarity with the strike, in order to confirm that their performances would not be interrupted. The onus should not be on undergraduate students to undertake the labor of navigating dynamics between SWC and the University.
Senior University administration has neglected to substantially address any of these issues.
- The senior University administration has not made an effort to listen to and include the student voice. CCSC has not received any communication from senior University officials on this matter.
- We appreciate the efforts of Columbia College leadership to provide some transparency to students during this time. However, senior University administration has failed to address the issues presented above in any capacity with the larger undergraduate student body.
- Students should not have been expected to navigate this uncertain environment alone. Without the proper University response, the burden has fallen on CCSC to fulfill the University’s contract. This is unacceptable.
Students enrolled at Columbia with the expectation that they would receive a full undergraduate experience. Since 2018, semester after semester, strike after strike, this obligation has not been fulfilled by the University. Now and going forward, the University must ensure that the undergraduate experience is not disrupted. We call on the University to reinforce its commitment to the undergraduate student body. The University’s contract with the student body has already been broken — any action taken is long overdue. If the University’s commitment to the educational success and overall well-being of its students is genuine, it needs to act now.
Signed by Columbia College Student Council
December 5th, 2021
Screenshot of email sent by Vice President of Columbia Human Resources Daniel Driscoll on Thursday, December 2 at 7:15 pm: