Columbia Graduate Students Walk Out in a Protest Over Unionization

The administration argues that they aren’t workers and has refused to negotiate

By Tulika Bose with reporting by Maea Lenei Buhre and Cecilia Butini

Graduate workers at Columbia University marched through the Morningside Heights campus Tuesday afternoon to protest the administration’s decision not to recognize their union. (Maea Lenei Buhre/NYCityLens)

 

“You know what’s disgusting? Union busting.”

The chant was heard across Columbia University Tuesday afternoon as hundreds of graduate students, who voted to join as an affiliate of the United Auto Workers Local 2100 Union more than a year ago, walked through the Ivy league campus, blue UAW signs strapped to their backs.

Nearby, people sat gathered by the steps of the quad to listen to a union organizer call for more collaboration between university workers and graduate student workers, from research assistants to teaching assistants.

Columbia’s graduate student workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize more than a year ago, but they still haven’t been granted bargaining rights by Columbia. They are demanding better benefits in their contracts and that recourse be granted in cases of sexual harassment on campus.

“We are teaching assistants. We do so much work in this university. All we ask is that you recognize our labor and that you sit down at the negotiating table with us,” said Noura Farra, 29, a research assistant in the Computer Science department.

The fight has centered around the  administration’s refusal to bargain with graduate students as members of a union. According to the university, graduate students are just students—not workers.

“We have long supported unions and collectively bargain with more than a dozen unions representing thousands of university employees. But we believe that student teaching and research assistants who come to Columbia for an education are not ’employees’ under the law,” said Caroline Adelman, a university spokeswoman in an emailed statement to NYCityLens.

But many graduate and Ph.D. students say they teach their own classes and rely on the stipends that they receive to make a living.

“Graduate students are workers here,” said Jason Resnikoff, a seventh year PhD student who teaches history. “Our value makes the university work, and we contribute to it.”

 

Strikers decorated the Alma Mater statue in front of Columbia University’s Low Library on Tuesday afternoon in protest against the administration. (Maea Lenei Buhre/NYCityLens)

For many of the striking graduate students, the march Tuesday was especially poignant because it took place on the anniversary of the 1968 student protests, the largest student protests in Columbia’s history. The timing also echoes larger teachers’ strikes happening in states around the country, including Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arizona.

Resnikoff, the Ph.D. student teaching history, even showed some of his students’ archival footage of the 1968 protests to explain why he planned on striking, and mentioned that he’s had to work odd jobs in addition to teaching to make ends meet. Resnikoff  said he makes below $30,000 a year, and he’s had to resort to selling his services as a tutor, a book editor, and even a note-taker.

The administration of Columbia University is standing firm in its reaction to the strike. While administrators declare themselves eager to support graduate students, they also say that recognition of the union should be up to a court— a notion that the strikers reject.

“We believe it would not serve the best interests of our academic mission—or of students themselves—for our student teaching and research assistants to engage with the university as employees rather than students,” read an April 18 letter from the  Provost to the university community.

Correction:  The original version of the story incorrectly referred to the Provost’s statement as a press release. It was not, it was a letter.  We apologize for the error.

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