Striking Workers at Columbia University Built a More Democratic Union and Won Big Gains
Student workers at Columbia University in New York City ended the largest active strike in the country on Jan. 7 after the union secured a tentative agreement with the Ivy League school. Three thousand union members with United Auto Workers Local 2110 had been on an unfair labor practice strike since Nov. 3. The striking workers wrested significant gains from the university administration, including: pay raises; better health care; improved child-care benefits; official recognition of their unit as the bargaining representative for all student workers in negotiations with the university over pay and labor conditions; and the right to third-party arbitration of discrimination and harassment complaints.
Striking students march in Harlem on Dec. 1, 2021. Credit: Erica Andrade
Student workers will receive raises ranging from 7-11%, based on the length of their appointments, according to a summary on Columbia’s website. Doctoral candidates on a 12-month appointment will see their salaries increase immediately from $41,520 to $44,500, applying retroactively beginning from Aug. 1, 2021, with salaries set to increase to $48,080 by August 2024. Those on nine-month appointments will get an increase from $35,140 to $39,000, with a further increase to $42,425 that kicks in in the fourth year of the contract. Minimum hourly pay will increase to $21. Summer stipends will now be $5,500, an increase of $1,500, and will go up to $6,365 in 2025.
On benefits, student workers will receive comprehensive dental coverage and higher child-care stipends, and Columbia has agreed to create a $300,000 emergency fund for student workers needing assistance with out-of-pocket medical expenses, as well as a similar fund for dependents.
“There is no doubt that this has been a challenging period for the University, yet all who were involved in collective bargaining shared the common goal of creating a stronger Columbia for those who teach and learn, conduct research, discover and innovate, work and study here,” provost Mary C. Boyce said in a statement.
With a four-year tentative agreement in hand, student workers will pore over their contract during a 15-day discussion period, followed by a weeklong ratification vote. The results will be announced Jan. 28
At stake still are workers’ demands for wages for lost work; that is, compensation for the work they will be doing to make up for the 10 weeks spent on the picket line, when wages were cut off. This week, bargaining committee members are in discussion with department chairs to establish make-up work arrangements. Student workers made a concession on open shop, which allows student workers to be free riders without joining the union and paying dues. Nonetheless, they are confident that they’ve built a strong organizing culture to reach new members and ultimately win union security in future contract cycles. That means everyone in the bargaining unit must either be a member or pay dues. (For more, see the Labor Notes special issue: “Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America.”)
Columbia student stands in solidarity with striking workers on Nov. 5, 2021. Credit: Jeremy Chiu
Striking student worker blows a whistle during picket that shut down Columbia’s campus on Dec. 8, 2021. Credit: Madison Ogletree.
At first glance, it may appear that the discussion period is nothing more than a formality. In many top-heavy unions, no one would bat an eyelash if you claimed that such discussion periods were pure “theater” or simply an exercise in managing “optics” by a power-mongering clique of leaders presiding over a turgid bureaucracy whose anti-democratic machinations are all but designed to leave members disengaged and disempowered. But as was the case in the John Deere strike last year, workers are growing increasingly confident in their ability to challenge the authority of their leadership, face down threats, and reject subpar tentative agreements in the hopes of reversing concessions or making bigger gains. And as the UAW moves to a more democratic voting system that will allow members to directly elect union leaders, workers’ growing confidence bodes well for rank-and-file reformers buoyed by these changes and the new leadership in the Teamsters.
At Columbia, after years of troublemaking and organizing drives across the higher education sector, student workers are no exception to this trend in the labor movement. Over years of struggle, they’ve transformed their union into a fighting organization led by rank-and-file members imbued with a culture of deep democracy and trust. TRNN spoke with some of the student worker leaders who banded together to fight for a different vision for the union and, in so doing, overcame their fears, raised expectations, and built a democratic union culture.
Last April, after another strike, student workers voted down a tentative agreement with the university that contained major concessions, but that was just the beginning of a major shakeup within the union. They also deposed the bargaining team, elected a union-democracy slate, and instituted reforms in their bylaws.
Lilian Coie, a doctoral student in neurobiology and a member of the bargaining committee, served on the team that negotiated the spring contract. Coie characterized the previous bargaining committee as one that operated from a sense of what was winnable as opposed to what members needed, elevating themselves above the rank and file as technocratic experts with the know-how to negotiate with management.
“There was a lot of ‘We’re on the bargaining committee, we have the experience, so we know exactly how much we can win,’” said Coie, who resigned from that bargaining team and joined the “Vote No” push on the tentative agreement. She was voted back onto the bargaining committee for the fall negotiations.
Thomas Preston, a doctoral student in the Germanic Languages and Literature Department, said that the “crisis of leadership” in the spring galvanized him to get more involved with the union, particularly when the bargaining team moved from open bargaining to mediation.
“Up until that point, many of us kind of coasted along with the notion that the bargaining committee we elected would just get the thing done for us,” he said. “The strike proved that rank-and-file unionism is the most powerful kind of unionism there is. We achieved everything through democratic processes and trusting the rank and file to self-organize.”
During the spring negotiations, the group Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (C-AWDU) began an internal campaign to raise members’ expectations.
“We would encourage people to talk about what they heard in the bargaining session with the university. ‘Is that acceptable to you? Do you think we can hold out for more?’” said Dominic Walker, a sociology PhD candidate who was on the bargaining committee in previous negotiations and is a member of C-AWDU.
In rejecting the rule of the self-styled experts who controlled their bargaining committee—and the upper echelons of the UAW itself—the rank and file at Columbia University subverted the hierarchy of a top-down union bureaucracy that was not serving members’ needs.
“During the campaign to vote down the tentative agreement, we modeled the type of democracy we hoped to see in a union; we held town halls that presented both ‘Vote Yes’ and ‘Vote No’ perspectives, organized an information session with legal experts, and encouraged debate,” said Lee. “This was vastly different from the way union leadership and UAW pushed out messaging for voting yes—that was lopsided and even dishonest.”
For the latest contract fight, they opted for open bargaining.
“Opening things up and relying on the strength of our unit, and less on the advice of the UAW or specific union leaders, really helped us grow and realize that we are the people who make things run, and we actually know best because we’re the workers here,” said Coie.
Student workers, Walker said, “sat in on negotiations. They’ve seen what we’ve proposed, and they see what the university responds and proposes, and they see how the university talks about them as people who don’t generate revenue—aren’t ‘real’ workers.”
Graduate workers at Columbia voted to unionize in 2014, but the university refused to recognize the union voluntarily. In 2016, after years of switching sides on the question of whether graduate students were technically employees, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed that graduate student workers who teach or research at private universities were employees with the right to form unions.
With open bargaining, Walker added, “it becomes a lot easier to tell folks that this university doesn’t respect you. You can fight for more when you sit and hear it yourself from the horse’s mouth, and so it was really a matter of making that process as democratic as possible, bringing people in, then having conversations with them about what they see.”
But while democracy is power, it does come with the inherent potential for things to go awry very quickly. Manuela Maria Luengas Solano, a doctoral student in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures Department, noted that there were open disagreements among the membership every step of the way. During those contentious moments when debates grew tense, she said a caucus member would share a tweet by Teamsters Local 804 as a way to remind student workers who the enemy was and how to conduct themselves as fellow workers in a shared struggle: “Like it or not, we are all in this together. Be gracious. Except to management, they can eat shit.”
And disagreements among the members were by no means low-stakes squabbles over minor issues. “We had disagreements on whether we should move on specific demands like recognition for hours,” Luengas Solano said. “In the end, we demonstrated that the power was in us. The bargaining committee was amazing and very courageous, but they also had to face a very vibrant rank and file that was involved in every decision.”
As a member of the bargaining committee, Tristan Du Puy, a PhD student in sustainable development, said that one of the core principles shared by committee members was that it wasn’t for them to make key decisions at the table without consulting the membership.
“Many unions think that electing the right leadership will create a radical base,” said Lee. “In my view, in a well-organized union, the rank and file will always be more radical and willing to challenge the structures and logic of power at our workplace. Bargaining is consistently a process that indoctrinates you into the logic of the employer.”
Even management took note of the shift.
“We had the head of HR at one point actually say to us, ‘This is not how business is run. Do you want to be businesspeople?’” Coie recalled.
It’s no secret that, after decades of public disinvestment and administrative restructuring, universities today operate more like corporations, but that transformation has redounded to the benefit of highly paid executives in administrative roles, whose ranks have proliferated at the expense of students and academic workers, according to an August 2021 report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
At Harvard University, for instance, 13 people hold the title of vice president. (Triskaidekaphobia be damned!) The trustees of Columbia University are the largest landowner in New York City after the city government.
“The university isn’t just a bad boss; it’s a bad landlord,” said Walker. Columbia isn’t alone among universities in pursuing an extractive model and harming surrounding communities, he said. “Johns Hopkins wants to have a private police force with guns in Baltimore City.”
With the total cost of attendance hovering at over $80,000 and an endowment growing to $14.35 billion during the pandemic, Columbia University’s corporate leaders have excelled at maximizing profits and excess revenue at the expense of creating entire generations of indebted students who, across the US, owe $1.5 trillion and are taught by similarly immiserated workers with low pay and meager benefits.
Take Mandi Spishak-Thomas, a doctoral student at the School of Social Work and a member of the bargaining committee. Spishak-Thomas and other School of Social Work student workers were earning $23,000 a year for a nine-month appointment until they got a pay hike to $29,000 last year.
“And now, as a result of the contract, we’re going to be making closer to $39,000. So it’s a huge increase for us,” she said.
As we saw in 2021, workers in different sectors around the country, even if they haven’t been putting it in these terms, are finding in collective action an answer to the question, “What’s the antidote to insatiable wealth accumulation and to the rule of the masters of capital?” That question—and that answer—very much applies to the world of higher education.
“Even when our bargaining committee wanted to give up, they couldn’t—because strikers voted to continue striking and hold the line with a clear understanding that one day longer means one day stronger,” said Lee.
As instructors of record, many of the student workers had leverage over the university as their roles within the university system meant they couldn’t be replaced to enter grades for the classes they taught. One day longer meant that student workers who withheld their labor had successfully disrupted the normal operation of the university.
That old-fashioned shibboleth from one of the greatest tomes of historical and economic analysis was inescapable: in the social relations of production between capital and labor, labor produces all value. The student workers knew this and, by withholding their labor, had created a crisis for Columbia.
According to Walker, the university responded by asking student workers to attest during every pay cycle if they had completed their assigned duties to surveil who was on strike (basically asking student workers to report on themselves to the university regarding their strike activities). The sotto-voce whimper of old money had grown into a yawp of desperation. How widespread was the strike? The administration needed to know. “It’s as close to asking ‘Are you striking?’ without asking ‘Are you striking?’” he said.
Imagine someone slapping you and asking, as you are nursing your ruddy cheek, if you are hurt. Of course the student workers were hurting (at nearly two months, theirs was one of the longest strikes in higher education in more than a decade), but they stood firm. Rent is too damn high in NYC, childcare is ridiculously expensive—add to all that piddling stuff like food, utilities, and unexpected incidental expenses like a visit to the doctor. Columbia knew keeping workers under its thumb makes them pliable. So it threatened student workers with taking away their spring appointments.
This bullying from Columbia, it appears, backfired. In fact, many student workers pointed to the university’s threat to replace them in early December as a turning point of the strike. In response to this threat, with support from labor unions across the city, students shut down the campus on Dec. 8.
“The most transformative moments were when the challenges seemed insurmountable, and yet we managed to lift each other up and keep going,” said Lee.
The workers were able to sustain their strike and continue withholding their labor because they had grown from a few militant members to hundreds of empowered workers involved in the collective work of building a powerful union.
“When I joined, I was not a union person. I didn’t even know what the word ‘rank and file’ meant,” said Coie.
But that didn’t matter. A transformation had occurred. Workers had developed an organizing attitude, confident in their power to fight back and solve problems together.
“I tend to place less emphasis on what the moment was when there was a turning point, and more emphasis on what made that turning point possible,” said Ellen David Friedman, co-facilitator of the United Caucuses of Rank & File Educators and board chair at Labor Notes. (Full disclosure: I am a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.)
While strikes get all the media attention, Friedman emphasizes that years of painstaking caucus work and internal debate are among the most critical factors that prepare the ground for workers to restabilize themselves after a crisis. “That’s what caucus work does: It teaches us how to do the work of building a powerful union.”
But to build a powerful union, student workers at Columbia needed organizing infrastructure.
After the spring tentative agreement was rejected, “we instituted democratic reforms, such as a new set of bylaws that mandated the bargaining committee to make all bargaining and strike decisions only after consultation with the unit through general-body meetings,” Lee added. “Every single move—from making concessions, to entering mediation, to calling and ending the strike—happened through democratic votes in collective settings.”
That environment created the conditions for heightened class struggle unionism and prepared the terrain for student workers to shut down the campus successfully.
Johannah King-Slutzky, a doctoral student in the English and Comparative Literature Department, describes how the union organized itself into districts to expand its outreach to departments and break out of existing silos. Workers set up committees for different articles of the contract, including stipends, child care, recognition, discrimination, and harassment. These deliberative bodies created the basis for deepening relationships.
“Striking is an emotional battle. Having people who are there and tell you that you’re not alone in the fight is really not an accessory to the fight. That’s a huge part of it,” said King-Slutzky.
Because management relies on division to stoke fear, workers need to establish common ground to stand united against the boss’s offensive.
Dominic Walker described the university bombarding student workers with deadlines throughout the strike, including emails requiring student workers to attest that they were working, through the biweekly pay system. Other emails were more direct and coercive: “We’re not going to guarantee that you’ll have a job in the spring if you don’t come off strike by X date,” Walker paraphrased. “You won’t get the bonus in this contract if you don’t agree to it by X date. This offer that’s on the table is gone by X date.”
One of the emails sent by Columbia University to student workers.
How did Walker overcome that fear? “One of the things that was really hard about that wasn’t just simply saying, ‘Fuck your deadline,’ but it was saying, ‘I’m going to have faith in these other people who are out with me, more than I have faith in what the university is going to do. I am safe if I stay together with these people.’”
The fear was palpable, Walker noted, “because people could have folded on those deadlines… But they held on, and because they held on together, that’s what made those deadlines disappear.”
The network of relationships workers had built with each other created the safety necessary for them to take bolder risks.
For André Pettman, a doctoral student in the French Department, safety in numbers assumed a different meaning. He described his view of the university completely shifting during the strike.
“I became more vocally critical of the university,” he said. “I became much more willing to put my name on emails to all faculty, or all students, disagreeing with the administration, pushing back against things that they’re saying.”
How did he overcome his fear? “I guess it sounds trite, especially in the context of a union: I think really feeling the support of a huge amount of people. I could turn to the right, to the left, figuratively speaking, and there would be folks there to support me.”
Even if there wasn’t support in any given department, “there was this huge network of people across the university all coming together. Once I took stock of that, the fear really went away.”
Update 1/15/2022: The original version of this article stated that the spring bargaining team “moved from open bargaining to closed mediation” but the mediation was not closed. We have made the correction.