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Articles Issue 6

Student Workers of Columbia and the Struggle for Palestine

A play-by-play account of Palestine solidarity organizing by students and workers at Columbia University, and an exploration of the political possibilities of organized student labor.

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“Culture war” commentators often place the college campus at the center of public debate, casting student activism as the face of all progressive politics while mystifying the capitalist social relations undergirding university life. As Jack D. has recently written, “those of us employed at universities in the U.S. cannot fail to observe the outsized fascination the political class has, in this moment, with university campuses.” Nowhere has this been more glaring than with the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “conflict.” Since the Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7th, mainstream media has latched on to the various forms of spectacle—protests, counter-protests, doxxing trucks—that have consolidated around university campuses, especially at Columbia University. Behind these public actions is a newly mobilized union organizing in the name of proletarian internationalism. Not since the 2021 Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) strike has the union been so energized. Rank-and-file participation had diminished in the typical lull between contract fights, and organizers struggled to sustain mass engagement rather than relying too heavily on a small activist core. After a nearly twenty-year unionization battle with the university, student workers were understandably fatigued and eager to return to their research and studies. Today, SWC organizers are in a unique position to revive rank-and-file engagement and politicize our everyday working lives, connecting principles of Palestine solidarity and worker control.

Columbia’s campus has seen dozens of student demonstrations since October, often bringing together hundreds of protesters on the central quad. In response Columbia has taken unprecedented actions against student activists, introducing levels of policing and NYPD cooperation beyond even its response to the campus protests of 1968—even as Zionist counter-protesters have violently attacked students without consequence. In November, University administration suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), referencing a procedurally dubious new University policy. Since then, numerous students have faced disciplinary proceedings in connection with “unauthorized” demonstrations. While less publicly visible, this repressive climate has deeply affected the everyday working lives of instructors and researchers. The University explicitly threatened to terminate a graduate student instructor for speaking with undergraduates about Israel’s war on Gaza, while numerous other student workers have faced intimidation tactics by supervisors. Administrators have also demanded that faculty report any events or even advisor-advisee conversations pertaining to Palestine/Israel. 

But for every repressive force there is also its dialectical opposite. First, SWC published a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people on October 18th. The product of conversations and collaboration among dozens of union members, this statement was ratified by a super majority in a unit-wide vote. After the suspension of SJP and JVP, 40 campus organizations formed the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition. Student workers voting to join the coalition filled the November 14th workplace council meeting to capacity and flooded into the hallway. A number of these workers signed union cards specifically to participate in this vote. Members organized an internal teach-in on labor organizing and Palestine and held a public rally against University retaliation targeting pro-Palestine student workers, featuring speeches by rank-and-file members and representatives from the Graduate Center of the Professional Staff Congress (CUNY), the Columbia University Resident Advisors Collective, and the undergraduate organization Student-Worker Solidarity. Meanwhile, union reps have continued to support student workers facing retaliation through disciplinary meetings and the formal grievance process, in one case halting a termination threat.

These activities are reorienting the union and how it frames the university as a site of struggle. Unsurprisingly some individuals complain that “a union isn’t supposed to be political,” but these frustrations have offered opportunities for discussions on how a labor union can relate to politics beyond “bread-and-butter” economic issues. As one student said during a meeting, “the union is not a subscription service” but something we together maintain, a collective struggle that includes, per our bylaws, “solidarity with other workers and oppressed peoples locally and internationally.” Rather than separating the “here and elsewhere,” many SWC organizers have emphasized how anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, and Zionist antisemitism impact our own working lives, particularly as we stand with diasporic Palestinian co-workers facing threats on and off campus. As we discuss and agitate with our coworkers around instances of anti-Palestine retaliation, we point both to principles of internationalist solidarity and, as we fight to wrest control over our classrooms from administrators and donors, to ideals of worker autonomy. Some of us aim beyond models of social movement unionism that treat workers as merely another constituency to mobilize for policy change. Instead, we hope to concretize internationalist politics through worker actions that might one day materially disrupt the imperialist war machine. Toward this end, SWC organizers have heeded Palestinian trade unions’ call for international solidarity in disrupting aid to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. An anti-war researchers working group has been mapping military funding sources and reaching out to coworkers in tandem with comrades at other campuses, building on the legacy of Vietnam-era organizers while taking advantage of the current possibilities of academic unionism. 

However, the question remains as to whether SWC organizers can translate the activist energy around resolutions and rallies into collective shop-floor actions in our classrooms and labs. Some union members worked in coalition with other student groups aimed at institutional divestment, so far focusing on educational events, brief sit-ins, and high-visibility demonstrations (although undergraduate organizers have also attempted to gather sufficient numbers for a tuition strike, so far without success). Others have pressured UAW Regional and International leadership to realign electoral endorsements as well as financial resources and staff priorities around Palestine solidarity. Yet behind closed doors, union members who regularly attend campus rallies continue to share stories about the intimidation tactics of supervisors and feelings of isolation in their everyday work environments. While numerous instructors have worn keffiyehs to class and participated individually in sporadic campus-wide walkouts, we have not yet come together as a union around a wider, more collective shop-floor action like the classroom teach-ins carried out by rank-and-file Oakland K-12 teachers. How can we address the apparent impasse between movement-building and workplace organizing? We can agitate around frustrations with the contradictions of the neoliberal university, under the vice grip of donor interests and customer-service relations—what indeed is the purpose of the liberal arts profession today, when instructors are punished for discussing world-historical events relevant to their expertise and pedagogy? We can then further politicize our coworkers by connecting such conditions to the far harsher reality experienced by Palestinian academic workers under Israeli apartheid and “educide.”. We can also push back against dependence on military funding in certain research fields (particularly in Engineering and Natural Sciences), and lack of researcher control over intellectual property and research applications. As student worker organizers, we must learn how to unite our own coworkers around tangible, sustained forms of Palestine solidarity, which must involve broad-based shop-floor action that transcends an activist milieu. This should be an especially immediate goal for those of us teaching in Humanities and Social Sciences departments, as we typically face fewer restrictions on shop-floor political speech than in most workplaces, academic or otherwise. Until then, it is difficult to imagine that we will make headway in confronting the UAW’s political dependence on the Democratic Party or in persuading fellow UAW members in munitions manufacturing to take risky disruptive action.

If campus internationalism reached its Zenith in the 1970s, waning in the subsequent decades, is there a conjunctural explanation for its renewal today? As said, universities have been a vital terrain for internationalist politics and organizing since the 1960s and 1970s, when the movement to create Ethnic studies departments, including Black studies, Women studies, Chicano studies, adopted the strategies and rhetoric of Third World movements. As late as 1996, Columbia students and faculty held a five-day hunger strike for the creation of an Ethnic studies department on campus. The university itself has become more global, seeking capital from international investment. From 1754 to 2008 Columbia had no other campuses, but it’s since opened 10, one of which is in Tel Aviv. This coincides with a sharp rise in its acceptance of international students, undergraduate and graduate alike, often treated as “cash cows” for profitable Masters degree programs. Palestinian freedom has been a staple in campus politics for decades. Can SWC’s internationalism confront Columbia’s strategic globality? Our employer’s imagination is global — let ours be so as well.

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