On December 2, Columbia University’s vice president of human resources Daniel Driscoll sent out an email stating that if workers who have been on an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike didn’t return to work by December 10, their positions would be replaced. The workers are three thousand members of Student Workers of Columbia (SWC), part of UAW Local 2110, and have been on strike since November 3.
“What they’re threatening is illegal,” says Becca Roskill, an undergraduate member of SWC’s bargaining committee and a course assistant in the computer science department. While SWC continues to bargain for its first contract, the current work stoppage followed members filing ULP charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). While it is legal to replace workers on an economic strike — though even Joe Biden is now arguing against such a move as Kellogg’s threatens to replace its own striking workers — it is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to permanently replace workers who are striking over unfair labor practices.
“We’ve had ULPs out since the beginning of the semester,” explains Roskill, “one, based on the fact that they gave 0 percent raises when the precedent had been 3 percent raises each year on, and the other based on the fact that they’ve restructured the stipend disbursement schedule so that they had the ability to withhold wages from striking instructors.”
While university appointments do change from one semester to the next, SWC members are guaranteed employment, and it is that guarantee which is being revoked. The threat affects all student workers, eliminating a source of income and placing their standing in their programs at risk. But it leaves international students in a particular quandary, as many of them are exclusively dependent on university work for income while in the United States.
As Wilma B. Liebman, a former NLRB chairwoman, told the New York Times, the university’s email is “a way of creating fear and doubt and coercing them, essentially, because of that fear and doubt, to abandon the strike.” While the Board could rule that Columbia’s action is a violation of the law, workers say that the slow pace of securing that ruling leaves them no choice but to prepare for the worst. Indeed, it is an artifact of lackluster labor law enforcement that employers like Columbia can publicly vow to take illegal action.
In response to the threat, SWC members organized a show of force on December 8, picketing the campus alongside faculty, students, and other unions — including the Teamsters, who brought a giant inflatable fat cat.
“Having folks come to our picket line the way they did on Wednesday made it clear to us that not only are you in a union, but you have the full support of the labor community,” says Dominic Walker, a sociology PhD candidate who was on SWC’s bargaining committee until last year. “People are going to join the picket line with you, chant with you, donate thousands of dollars to you, and make food for you. It’s winning people over to the idea that they belong in a union, and that they’re really glad they’re in one.”
The university has since alleged that picketers engaged in violence during the action, a claim the union disputes. When asked about university provost Mary C. Boyce’s email alleging violence, which stated that members of the administration “denounce these actions in the strongest possible terms,” Walker listed off incidents of anti-union individuals behaving violently toward picketers.
“An assumed male student spit in the face of a female picketer,” recounted Walker. “A cyclist intentionally ran over a picketer’s foot and yelled, ‘If this was my country, I would have had your face smashed in.’”
The work stoppage is currently the largest active strike in the United States, and comes amid a wave of higher education labor organizing. Harvard University’s graduate student union recently struck for three days, ultimately reaching a tentative agreement with the administration that members ratified last month, though not without dispute.
One weakness of the Harvard contract is that it is effectively “open shop,” meaning members are not required to pay dues. SWC members say Columbia, too, refuses to include union security in its proposals.
“We feel like our strike is important not only for Columbia, but for the broader higher-ed labor movement and the labor movement at large, because we’ve seen how one shop’s contract negotiations directly affect another,” says Roskill.
When the NYU graduate union was negotiating its own contract this year, the NYU administration was watching what was happening at Columbia. SWC’s rejection of a tentative agreement in April of 2021 was a factor in NYU workers ultimately winning a strong contract — the NYU administration did not want to find itself in a similar situation as its counterpart uptown. Now, Harvard’s weaker contract is serving a similar role for management at Columbia, providing a precedent for the administration to reference when rejecting basic standards such as union security and an effective arbitration system for cases of harassment and discrimination.
While members of the SWC bargaining committee say progress has been made on dental, which was a key issue in the negotiations, distance still remains on wages and some noneconomic demands.
In the university’s most recent offer, “There were no improvements in the the arbitration that we’re allowed access to for harassment and discrimination, and there were marginal wage increases that were equivalent to 5 percent for workers on appointment and 3 percent for workers off appointment, which after inflation, comes out to a real wage decrease,” says Roskill. She adds:
I don’t know how we can be any more clear about the fact that it’s not acceptable for our contract to bake in a pay cut for workers. It is unreasonable for them to put this up as their last offer and to ask our unit to vote on a contract that would be an effective pay cut, while also not including our basic noneconomic demands, like union security, arbitration, and full recognition of our unit.
Workers want a wage floor of $45,000, a number they say came from modest calculations of what comes close to a living wage in New York City. The university, which saw returns of 32.3 percent on its endowment in 2021 (that endowment is now valued at $14.35 billion) remains resistant to this number.
“For many of us, the university is a company town,” says Walker. “They’re our insurer. They’re our landlord. They’re our school. They’re our boss. When they don’t pay us enough, who can I not pay rent to? Columbia. The cash goes back to them, so it doesn’t make sense that we’re spending so much time on this when they know that they’re going to get the money back.” Referencing the university’s endowment, Walker adds, “The logic that a billionaire can’t afford” to meet workers’ demands “doesn’t make sense.”
The deadline Columbia set for workers ending their strike has now passed, and the administration hopes to reach a tentative agreement with the workers before Christmas, allowing the spring semester to proceed smoothly. The union is focused on building support among faculty, students, and the broader community to prevent the university’s plan to find scabs and, hopefully, to pressure the administration to offer proposals that meet workers’ needs.
“The university is in a bind as they’re desperately hoping that we’ll be able to have everything nicely tied up with a bow before next semester,” says Roskill. “But they’re going to need to make a much better offer if that’s going to happen. Otherwise, we’re going to keep fighting.”