Columbia University forces TAs, RAs to strike, again
via Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW

NEW YORK—For the second time in four years, Columbia University’s intransigent bosses’ refusal to meaningfully bargain for a contract with their more than 2,000 teaching assistants and resident assistants forced those workers to strike.

The walkout began on March 16, even though a three-and-a-half-hour bargaining session was scheduled for that afternoon. The two sides are still far apart on basic issues. “Two years at the bargaining table is long enough,” the workers said.

The strike is physical and, given the coronavirus pandemic, digital, with the hashtag #cuonstrike, and an online picket line sign up. The workers voted 96% to 4% several months ago to authorize a strike.

“Instead of teaching, grading papers, and performing research, Teaching and Research Assistants across campus are walking picket lines. They have been joined by hundreds of undergraduates, faculty, elected leaders, and community allies,” the TAs and RAs’ union, GWC-United Auto Workers Local 2110, added.

Some 72% of the RAs and TAs voted to unionize in 2017 but had to strike the next year when Columbia refused to recognize and bargain with the local. The issues in this strike still include: formal recognition of the union; creation of the union shop; an end to low stipends, late paychecks, and lack of job security; reduction of huge teaching loads; and instituting employer-provided health care coverage.

There’s a big new issue: Sexual harassment and assault on campus, and Columbia’s failure to move against exploitative male professors, virtually ignoring the rise of the #MeToo movement in recent years.

Columbia seems “determined to keep the same structures in place that allowed professors like William Harris and Thomas Jessell to abuse young, predominantly female workers for decades,” Ludda Ludwig, a Ph.D. student in Environmental Sciences and a bargaining committee member, told the UAW.

“Despite their intransigence, we have shown up to every bargaining session, demanding Columbia give us the protections we need to succeed and to make the university more inclusive and equitable.”

In another indication of the importance of the sexual harassment issue, the union scheduled a teach-in on “feminist, anti-racist rank-and-file organizing strategy” an hour before the March 16 bargaining session was scheduled to begin.

The TAs and RAs also want the university to stand up for international TAs and RAs whose visas and work permits have been threatened.

“The university has left us no choice but to escalate,” Susannah Glickman, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in History, told the UAW. “We are committed to securing a contract that improves our working conditions, including our right to adequate health care, protections against discrimination and harassment, and a fair wage with ability to finish our degrees despite the disruption of the pandemic.

“The university also needs to recognize all workers, no exceptions”—a reference to protecting the international TAs and RAs, said Glickman. “We will not settle for less.”

The forced strike “is a showdown between the academic 1% of deans and administrators and the 99% of younger academic workers,” the union added. The workers have drawn public and political support, including from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Rep. Grace Meek, D-N.Y., New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), and 200 other political figures.

Columbia, along with other private universities, had tried to stop recognition of the union. It argued to the National Labor Relations Board that TAs and RAs are “students” paid stipends to cover tuition, room, and board, and not “employees” with workers’ rights to organize and bargain. In 2016, the then-Democratic NLRB majority ruled TAs and RAs are “employees.”

The subsequent Trump-named NLRB Republican majority reversed that decision, and also planned to write the ban on TAs and RAs unionizing into stone via a federal rule. But the board, still with a GOP majority, reversed its reversal and withdrew its rule on March 12.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.