Strange Beasts of Columbia

According to the administration, the typical Columbia student worker must be an eyeless, toothless, infertile male creature bred on the cold shores of New England, who is about to inherit a fortune amassed by generations of well-educated ancestors. A strange aura makes him immune to any power-based harm, and its internal organs enable him to breathe well below the level of a living wage in New York City. You won’t find such a creature in any ancient bestiary; it could only have been born from the bowels of Columbia’s Lovecraftian bureaucratic imagination. It is the image that explains the administration’s reluctance to settle for a fair contract that provides dental and vision insurance, family leave and childcare, real protections against discrimination and harassment, union security, and a living wage. During a recent bargaining session, Columbia’s anti-union lawyer reacted with an uncanny line toward our otherworldly demands: “we are not even in the same universe.” It is true. What remains to be seen is which of us is the alien.

Faculty and undergraduate students in solidarity with Student Workers of Columbia, Dec. 6, 2021. Photo by the author.

If the description above does not fit you, then you will understand why we, over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers, are about to enter our ninth week on strike. It is not the first time. The Student Workers of Columbia have been on strike four times in the last three years: spring 2018, fall 2020, spring 2021, and now fall 2021. The issues remain the same. The administration’s strategy has also remained the same. Now, having returned to campus after the pandemic disruption, we have reached a breaking point. Dozens of unions throughout the country have too. We stand together and we will not give up.

Over the course of the pandemic, Columbia’s alleged financial crisis was at the heart of their anti-unionization push. This was quickly revealed to be a lie, as Columbia’s wealth grew $3.3 billion in 2020, amounting to a staggering $14 billion endowment. After the union rejected a tentative agreement reached in the spring 2021 semester, Columbia refused to bargain during the summer 2021 term. Instead, they froze our wages and changed our pay structure in retaliation. These union busting tactics were aimed at weakening our members in the event that we would need to go on strike in the fall. By doing so, the University ended up creating the critical situation we are in now. To put this into perspective: we received our last paycheck last November 15, for $93.30, and now hundreds of us, in different schools and departments, owe Columbia thousands in rent, which earns you a registration hold for the next semester. Columbia can at times appear to us as a monster of many tentacles: it is our academic advisor, our employer, our landlord, our health insurer and provider, our safeguard against discrimination and harassment, our visa sponsor. Comparisons with a company town fall short in depicting how horrific it can be to fall from grace with such an organism.

The first four weeks of the strike were met with Columbia’s well-known reluctance to bargain in good faith. Seeing that we were not giving up, anxieties over the loss of classes for a full month began to grow, and their evident willingness to stonewall the process caused membership to grow rather than shrink. That’s why, earlier in December, the administration posed not a new proposal but rather their ultimate threat: job loss. Columbia declared that they would cancel student workers’ appointments scheduled to start mid-January 2022 if they did not return to work by December 10th. Such a threat is illegal as workers cannot be “permanently replaced” when on an Unfair Labor Practice strike such as ours. When the date came, we learned that Columbia Human Resources was distributing a sort of black list to each department indicating who would and would not be eligible for appointments next semester, depending on their participation on the strike. Just like a famous Christmas song, Columbia was making a list and checking it twice. And would definitely find out who was naughty and who was nice.

The Columbia Graduate School of Arts & Sciences argues that our status as students would not be affected if we lost our jobs; it is clear they say that only as a formality to protect them —not us— from eventual legal issues. After all, the reason why each of us has lost around $6,500 in wages and stipends is that we are not fulfilling our duties as workers. Being only a student (and not a worker) does not exist as an alternative, especially for international students. Why, then, would we receive any income if they replace us next semester? And how could we continue in our programs without income?

While we were processing those questions, on the sixth week of the strike, the University presented a new proposal. It remains a mystery to us why they did not present it before. But despite the time they had to work on it, the proposal still fell short on all key demands: it kept us well below a living wage, it did not offer neutral arbitration, and it did not provide union security. It only offered a somewhat acceptable dental insurance. Vision was excluded. Union security was absent. Columbia imposed a deadline for approval: December 23. The threats remain in place.

Teamsters Local 804 at the picket line in support of Student Workers of Columbia, Dec. 8, 2021. Photo by the author.

In their effort to crush any defiance to the status quo, Columbia has sown administrative, academic and human chaos throughout the university. Demands for tuition refunds are mounting. Plans to make up credit hours are being rejected by faculty and students alike. Uncertainty regarding the spring 2022 semester has not been addressed. Retaliatory measures keep provoking outrage and eliciting support from faculty and the community. Their negligent bargaining strategy spreads confusion and exhaustion. Even The Wall Street Journal editorial board, not known for their progressive views, asked “why the university can’t afford to pay student workers—many of whom are being buried in debt that they may never be able to repay—more given they do much of the teaching and grading.”

Meanwhile, the administration has focused not so much on reaching an agreement but on carrying out a badly managed disinformation campaign. Such a campaign is not only based on a misrepresentation of their proposal and of our demands, but is constructed on “alternative facts” regarding the whole process, which can only make one shudder. This campaign — led by a Provost who has never attended a single bargaining session — even featured an anonymous op-ed from the campus paper, Columbia Spectator, portraying our movement as apathetic and driven only by “a handful of resolute strikers barely large enough to circle the sundial.”

These apathetic but at the same time resolute strikers have managed to be on the picket line every day, have coordinated with unionized delivery workers, have distributed leaflets, and have attended uncountable bargaining sessions. They have organized teach-ins, reached out to the press and elected officials, filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), built bridges with undergrads and faculty, and held hundreds of hours of discussions. They have flooded the campus with militant creativity and humor, they have written draft after draft for each contract article, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those most affected by income withholding. They have put their collective force, intelligence and imagination at full work. Not bad for apathetic aliens.

In a stroke of good timing (for us at least) the anonymous op-ed appeared two days before faculty and undergraduate students joined us in solidarity in the biggest rally up to that date. Just a few days later, a huge campus demonstration was held, featuring elected officials, community leaders and union siblings from all over the city. The New York Times published a second article on the strike, followed by many other media outlets. Even actor Danny DeVito disparaged Columbia’s position on Twitter: “New York is still a union town! Solidarity forever. Respect Labor. Students stand strong.” And just as the pressure on them was mounting, the university decided to abandon the mediation process altogether for a whole week, trying to wait us out while we deal with the grim prospects of unemployment and debt. Regarding undergraduate studies, their only plan now is to replace underpaid graduate workers with underpaid adjuncts, thus further undermining the very education for which they charge the highest tuition in the country. Now that Omicron cases are soaring in New York, it is likely that the administration expects huge revenues. Again.

Student Workers of Columbia protesting in front of Schermerhorn Hall, where President Lee Bollinger was teaching his last class of the semester. Dec. 8, 2021. Photo by the author.

Thus, Columbia University’s commitment to precarity, union-busting, and the protection of abusers has only deepened. Our commitment to a living wage, union security, proper healthcare and neutral arbitration has deepened too. You can imagine how hard it is to focus on any research project under these circumstances. That is why the university as a creative intellectual endeavor has come to a standstill for many of us. It has been replaced by a costly and badly managed repressive apparatus aimed at preserving managerial authoritarianism.

There is an ongoing discussion among faculty about the future of our programs, of our departments, of the humanities themselves. Some believe that the crisis in the humanities was triggered by our strike. Some believe the chronic underfunding and disregard of our disciplines can be solved by punching down to graduate students and stonewalling any common organized effort that goes beyond the present state of things. We believe that obsequiousness does not make us stronger but only weaker. It makes us redundant. We believe that if the humanities have become incompatible with fair living and working conditions, maybe the humanities as we know them need to come to an end. Together, we can move beyond the Lovecraftian bureaucratic imagination and bring about something better.

Things are developing fast these days. Columbia presented a new proposal on Christmas Eve and set a new deadline: December 31. But despite the fact that we have made progress on all topics and our union is willing to reach an agreement, Columbia’s proposals keep falling short in one fundamental issue: recognition. That is, the definition of who is included in the unit and therefore receives contract protections. Why does this matter? Because Columbia insists on excluding casual workers from the workplace protection we are demanding. As student workers at Brown and Harvard know very well, this creates the conditions for further casualization of the workforce. If the administration can arbitrarily define what a worker is by imposing an hourly threshold, you can guess what they will do next: they will reclassify workers and create new precarious positions.

Our proposal is simple: follow the law. The union’s proposal is to adopt National Labor Relations Board language without any change. Recognition for all student workers has no economic cost for the university. They are prolonging the strike just because they want to cut people out of workplace protections. One of those hourly workers they want to cut out is a member of our Bargaining Committee. We cannot accept leaving our colleagues behind. 

Our struggle takes place in a much broader context. Recent negotiations at Brown, Harvard and NYU have played a key role at Columbia, and the current wave of labor strikes, however limited by decades of dismantling of the labor movement, is expressive of deeper conflicts running throughout the country. Kellogg, Nabisco and John Deere are just a handful of examples. Despite the enormous effort Columbia has put since 2014 to resist unionization by all means available, today we are very close to reaching an agreement on most of our key demands. While millions of workers have quitted or retired in the past year, we are among those who have chosen to fight back. Collective action is like alchemy: it can suddenly make the impossible possible, it can reunite separate universes, it can turn aliens into human beings. We have already spent Christmas and New Years Eve at the bargaining table, but our willingness to fight will not cede. After all, both the pandemic and Columbia’s chronic mismanagement taught us the skills needed for a protracted strike. Late payment and other forms of mistreatment are the norm — withholdings are, of course, always on time. We are ready to go to the end.

Intervention in Low Library by the art-activist collective The Illuminator (@illuminator99). Dec. 22, 2021.

The author thanks Tamara Hache, Manuela Luengas, Lexie Cook, Katryn Evinson, Iuri Bauler, Javiera Irribarren, Analía Lavín and Catalina Olea for their crucial collaboration. If you would like to express your solidarity, please consider donating to the SWC Hardship Fund.

Eduardo Vergara Torres on Twitter

Eduardo Vergara Torres is a PhD student in Latin American and Iberian cultures at Columbia University.