“What is the university until we arrive?”
— June Jordan, 1969
Over the past decade there has been a proliferation of graduate student organizing and the formation of graduate student unions– at The New School, Harvard, Brown, Tufts, and Brandeis, to name a few. Simultaneously, a number of strikes and threatened strikes have drawn attention to the extent to which the university has become one of the primary sites of precarious employment. Only 28% of Columbia courses, for example, are currently taught by tenured professors. Fighting for a cost-of-living adjustment, graduate workers at UC Santa Cruz held a wildcat strike in December 2019, in which 54 workers were fired by the university for not turning in final grades. Earlier in 2019, after Rutgers University refused to negotiate with AAUP-AFT– the union that represents both professors and graduate instructors– for a new contract, tenured professors, non-tenure track professors, adjuncts, and graduate workers threatened to bring the entire university to a halt.
As the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic began to escalate in March 2020, Graduate Workers of Columbia – United Auto Workers (now Student Workers of Columbia) voted to authorize a strike by an overwhelming majority of 96%. At that point, the union had already been in negotiations with Columbia for a year, negotiations which Columbia had refused to participate in for two years after the NLRB certified the union in 2016. This NLRB ruling decided that graduate students at private universities had the right to unionize. This NLRB decision also ruled that all students employed at Columbia–whether undergraduate, masters or doctoral–would be recognized as part of the union regardless of how many hours they worked. The union decided to officially go on strike on March 15th, 2021, after two years of stalled negotiations in which the university partook in illegal bargaining practices, such as refusing to negotiate on healthcare.
The main demands of the strike included third-party neutral arbitration for harassment and discrimination cases, increased compensation for doctoral and hourly workers, a fund to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses and expanded dental coverage, and the establishment of a union shop. A crucial demand which continues to be a site of contention into the Fall 2021 strike is full recognition of the union; Columbia does not recognize masters and undergraduate workers, particularly those who are casually employed, as part of the union despite the NLRB ruling. The demand for third-party neutral arbitration was, and is, one of the main sticking points for the university, as it claimed the full ability to establish such an arbitration process but felt ideologically opposed to it—that such conflicts should be worked out internally. The university’s unwillingness to provide third-party neutral arbitration was disturbing for many in the wake of several sexual assault and racial discrimination cases, and the general issue of abusive advisors whom the university continues to protect. In regards to compensation, although graduate stipends at Columbia are well below the New York City living wage, as calculated by MIT, the university argued that the stipends were comparable to what other NYC graduates received and therefore was not a legitimate point of negotiation.
Right before the strike began on March 15, 2021, Columbia released a statement detailing that the university would withhold wages from hourly workers who were on strike, as well as bill back prorated portions of stipends from those on appointments. From this beginning, this decision sowed discord within the union between people who felt they could no longer afford to strike and those who could. This policy especially puts international students in a precarious position. Columbia also announced that graduate workers would be required to complete an attestation to confirm whether or not they had worked that day. It was decided that no one should fill out the form, whether they were on strike or not.
After a few weeks on strike, the bargaining committee traded a “strike pause” for entering mediation. Not only did the BC enact this trade without the vote of the rank and file, it was also discovered that a “strike pause” does not exist in UAW by-laws, and so complaints were later filed in regards to this violation. At this point, the strike became a disorganized, ad hoc affair in which some students remained on strike, some students returned to teaching but withheld final grades, and some entirely resumed teaching. Essentially, Columbia’s strategy to create chaos within the union had worked.
After the BC tentatively agreed to a contract without the consent of the rank and file, a split ensued between the “Vote No” and “Vote Yes” campaigns. The TA contract did not include third-party neutral arbitration, provided only a 25% discount at Columbia Dental, shrunk the size of the unit to doctoral students only, and stipulated a no-strike clause. For the most part, the split between the campaigns was an ideological distinction. While the “Vote No” campaign argued that the TA contract did not nearly approximate our original demands and weakened the power of the union long-term, the latter contended that the ratification of a contract was an achievement in-and-of-itself and therefore the unit should ratify as soon as possible. It seems that one of the main sticking points that moved students who did not necessarily have an ideological position on the content of the contract itself was the elimination of student workers who had gone on strike from the TA contract. In other words, the BC had TA’d a contract that would carve out certain students from the unit, namely undergraduates and masters students, who had gone on strike and thus lost wages.
Now confirmed, there were suspicions that UAW had been pressuring the BC to draw the strike to a close as quickly as possible so they would not have to continue paying out strike support as the strike dragged on. Seven of the ten bargaining committee members were with the university and UAW, while the other three members who refused to capitulate to the bosses were shut out of all bargaining communications. Moreover, one member of the BC revealed that UAW had been advising the committee not to call a strike, arguing that only the threat of a strike has any force and not the withholding of labor. Despite the efforts to push through a TA which had been pre-approved by the bosses and UAW, the rank and file voted down the contract by a slim margin of 51% to 49%.
A contributing factor to the disorganization of the union at Columbia, and possibly for graduate student unions everywhere, is the fragmented nature of the rank and file; members of the unit all come from different departments within the university, each with its own employment and pay structure, especially when comparing along disciplinary lines–humanities, STEM, and social science. Indeed, the university has 132 graduate programs, 62 of which have doctoral programs. Humanities doctoral students teach courses within their department as required by their fellowship package, whereas STEM students’ employment is contingent on the professor running the lab in which they work. While English doctoral students are a minority within the unit, their labor is particularly important to consider and organize around because they teach the introductory University Writing and CORE classes, which every freshman is required to take at Columbia. As such, a part of the union’s strategy up until now, and going forward, is not only disrupting an entire class’s ability to graduate on time, but also the potential desire for future students to even apply to Columbia in the first place.
As the union prepared for a new round of negotiations with a new BC, the previous BC having resigned, Columbia University announced its latest striking-breaking tactic. On July 26, the university announced that it was changing the pay structure for Ph.D. students. Before the change, those on teaching appointments received two-thirds of their stipends as a lump sum of $10,000 at the beginning of the semester, with the rest paid bi-weekly. The new pay structure means that students will be receiving less than one-fifth of their stipend, amounting to $2,600, at the beginning of the semester, with the remaining amount to be paid bi-weekly. Announced with five weeks left before the semester starts, a time in which many students incur moving fees or are generally struggling after a summer without pay, the rank and file is currently anxious and concerned about its ability to pay living expenses, let alone go on strike. It is clear to the union that Columbia is attempting to preempt a strike by diminishing students’ financial security to disincentivize them from going on strike and having wages withheld. While it is legal to withhold wages from striking workers, it is illegal for the university to bill back portions of students’ stipends once they have been distributed. Coupled with the university engaging in illegal landlord practices, such as billing for two months’ rent at once, this latest strike-breaking tactic by Columbia signals a larger effort to transform the already proletarianized graduate student labor into a precariat class. Since Columbia raised the rent for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began during which the university implemented a rent freeze, a concession tenants won with a rent strike during the summer of 2020, the rank and file is organized on all dimensions of the struggle.
It is clear that Columbia University is systematically implementing policy to weaken the financial and political power of the union long-term; and in response, the Student Workers of Columbia have become more organized than ever and are committed to creating a democratic infrastructure, facilitated by a new, ideologically coherent and militant bargaining committee. For example, the union is now composed of working groups, which members of the BC participate in, which draft proposals the BC incorporates into their negotiations. Decisions are also made through general body meetings held multiple times a week during which members discuss and vote on key issues in an open forum. Over the course of the current strike, the rank and file participate in a weekly vote to either continue or cease the strike. All bargaining sessions, held over zoom, are also open to rank and file members, who attend sessions in the hundreds. The transparency and openness with which the union is now run have also created the opportunity for more militant action, such as the December 8th shut down of campus. In addition to escalated actions, we are organizing a rent strike for those who live in Columbia housing and attempting to bridge the labor struggle to the housing struggle.
The proliferation of graduate student organizing over the past decade is, at the same time, a sign of both the proletarianization of higher education and the resurgence of labor organizing. Above all, this allows us to ask: what is the role of graduate student organizing not only within the university as a site of finance capital but within the entire landscape of class struggle being waged across the country and beyond? If communists organize at the point of production, we need to be asking, then, what is it that graduate labor produces? It is not only a commodity in the form of a degree, it is also a whole system of legitimation and accreditation by which capitalism reproduces itself. “What is the university until we arrive?” June Jordan asked in her 1969 essay, “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person,” in response to the student movements fighting for Black studies, Women studies, and Ethnic studies departments. What she meant by this question was, until students mobilize, is the university an incubator for progressive ideals or is it the space in which capitalism merely produces and reproduces knowledge about itself for itself?
But we can also ask, what is a university? What is a credential? , I define “university” not as an educational institution per se, but as a particular kind of market whose logic of exchange necessitates the formalization of knowledge within particular forms—the journal article, the monograph, the anthology—and disciplinary delimitations—the canon, for example. Through the formalization of knowledge, in process and in form, the university produces the credentials which secure the fiction of equivalence’s exchange. This is homologous to the racialized policing of currency, as Lenora Hanson writes in “Uprising, or ‘a kind of manna,” about the murder of George Floyd, “that this bill can be suspected as ‘counterfeit’ exposes a scene that always must be secured by the police. This is a scene in which the fraudulence of money’s ‘universal equivalence’ threatens to be exposed for it has always been—a false border between those designated to die and those designated to live inside or outside of property.” This is not to suggest a vulgar conflation between the police and the university. It is rather to say that, in the way the police conceal the “tautology” of the counterfeit, the university secures the credential as a currency which produces the fiction of “counterfeit” knowledge to conceal the fictionalization of knowledge generally. So communists working and organizing within the university also potentially need to think about the university not just as an employer, but as homologous with a host of institutions from the police, to prisons, to banks.
Around midnight on January 6th, 2022, the SWC-UAW reached a tentative agreement with Columbia University and officially ended the ten-week strike on January 7th. The TA includes contract articles the university had been stating for years it would never agree to. Namely, the union won third-party neutral arbitration and full recognition of our unit per the 2016 NLRB ruling which stated that any student at Columbia University would be part of the unit regardless of hours worked. With the ratification of the contract, the university will also provide Ph.D. students with dental insurance, covering 75% of related costs. The union, however, had to make concessions on compensation in order to win arbitration and recognition. Not including summer stipends, those on nine-month appointments will make a minimum of $33,000 per year, and those on twelve-month appointments will make a minimum of $44,500 per year, with scheduled 3% raises. The contract also does not include any union security, such as a union shop or agency fees, so the union is already planning organizing strategies to maintain a strong, militant union without such protective measures. In the light of the university refusing to return our stipends, many students will remain in financial debt. We are organizing mutual aid efforts through our hardship fund in order to support these students. Our commitment to rank-and-file organizing, as well as the solidarity from a number of local organizations, has gotten us this far, but we have a world to win!