By Blair F. Bertaccini
December 30, 2021
The union representing 3,500 graduate and undergraduate workers at Columbia University has been on strike for nine weeks now, currently the largest ongoing strike in the U.S., and is close to an agreement. However, a major issue remains concerning the scope of the bargaining unit. The union, Local 2110 of the UAW and called Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) negotiated a settlement in the spring which was rejected by the membership in a 1,093 to 970 vote. After that vote the bargaining committee resigned and a new one was elected which represented the “no” vote.
After classes resumed in the fall union members walked out after reaching an impasse with Columbia. After being out for about six weeks the university then sent a letter to all the student workers telling them that if they did not return to work on December 10th they would lose their employment. The union’s reaction to this was to call for mass picketing by union members and their allies in front of all Columbia’s entrances in order to shut down its operations on December 8th.
Picketers frequently joined hands or linked arms as they circled in front of the entrances in a largely successful effort causing classes to be cancelled or changed to virtual. Members from other unions, many from the Professional Staff Congress (AFT) representing teachers and adjuncts at the City University of New York, joined in with picket signs of solidarity and support. Columbia has basically agreed to the union’s latest offer as regards to wages, benefits and a neutral arbitration process for harassment complaints, but a major sticking point remains about which student workers will be covered by the agreement.
When the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia recognize the union and bargain with it named the job titles of who was in the bargaining unit recognizing all students, graduate and undergraduate, that taught or assisted in teaching. Columbia put a proposal on the table which ignores that ruling and instead says that to be covered by the contract workers must work at least 15 hours per week or be scheduled for a cumulative 250 hours.
At a virtual rally on December 30, union members made clear that this is not acceptable. If accepted this proposal would institute a two-tiered system which would allow Columbia the ability to undermine their union. Indeed, Columbia workers heard from their counterparts at Brown and Harvard Universities at the rally who warned them that their collective bargaining agreements had been circumvented because their language was not as inclusive as it should be. Today institutions of higher learning behave like any corporate employer in their efforts to defeat and undermine unions and will change workers’ schedules and titles in an effort to exclude them from bargaining units and union protections.
Columbia University’s history of fighting student worker organizing goes back to 1951 and continues to this day as they attempt to keep the employment of students in teaching as precarious as possible. This strike is about control of the workplace and the workers’ power to control their work and their lives. The union points out that their proposal will have no financial impact on Columbia as some professors pressure the school to keep their ability to hire and fire “casual” workers as they see fit. Columbia’s $13.4B endowment will easily allow them to pay their student workers good wages and benefits and it must be all the student workers, not just some of them.
Union members at the rally were well aware of the problem of two (or more) tiered contracts and current fights like the recently concluded strike against Kellogg’s in which a major demand was an end to a two-tier wage scale.
So, their slogan remains “Leave No Worker Behind”.