Tensions rise in Columbia as strikers fear retaliation from university


Striking student workers at Columbia formed picket lines that blocked campus entrances and prevented other students from entering class. A big giant inflatable cat fluttered in the breeze as dozens of drivers heading towards Broadway honked their horns in support. A 10-foot banner with the words “Fair Contract Now” was displayed along a viaduct on Amsterdam Avenue.

The protest scenes that dot the campus on Wednesday came six weeks after the start of a strike by the Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union with about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The strike, which is waged for higher wages, extended health care and better protections against harassment and discrimination, has dragged the campus administration into a long struggle with its own student body.

Wednesday’s action resulted in one of the largest turnouts since the strike began, with union members joined by student union members and professors from New York University, Fordham University and of New York City University, as well as unions such as Teamsters Local 804.

“Today, I think, there is a real spectacle that we are the backbone of this university, and without us the university doesn’t really function,” said Mandi Spishak-Thomas, doctoral student at the School. social worker and member of the union bargaining committee.

The picket line came days after Dan Driscoll, vice president of the university’s human resources department, emailed working students saying those who don’t return to work on Friday are unsecured employment next semester.

“Please note that striking officer cadets returning to work after December 10, 2021 will be appointed / assigned to appropriate positions if available,” Driscoll said in the email.

The widely circulated email sparked outrage and accusations that the university was trying to retaliate against the strikers.

Scott Schell, a spokesperson for the university, argued that his actions did not constitute an unfair labor practice. He cited the National Labor Relations Act, which says that although firing workers for striking is illegal and workers have the right to return to their jobs after a strike ends, employers are allowed to replace those workers while the strike continues.

“In the face of the extremely trying circumstances created by the strike, our first priority is the academic progress of our students, especially undergraduates whose classes are interrupted,” said Mr. Schell. “The message sent to explain the spring appointments and teaching assignments was necessary to fulfill this commitment. “

Wilma B. Liebman, former chair of the National Industrial Relations Council, said the university appeared to be putting undue pressure on student workers by suggesting they were guaranteed to keep their jobs only if they stopped the strike now.

“For me, it’s a way of creating fear and doubt and forcing them, basically, because of that fear and that doubt, to give up the strike,” Ms. Liebman said.

Several faculty members attending Wednesday’s picket line said the email motivated them to join the union’s efforts. About 100 faculty members held their own protest on campus Monday.

“This is part of what I think is pushing more professors out,” said Susan Witte, professor at the School of Social Work. “It was retaliation, it was inappropriate and it was extremely disturbing.”

Ms Witte added: “As a full faculty member, I believe protected employees have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of other employees.

Local politicians such as Zohran Mamdani, a member of the state assembly who represents parts of Queens, also showed up to support union members who were picketing. Mr Mamdani said he received messages almost daily from voters who have graduated from Columbia.

“These workers are putting everything they have on the line,” he said. “The fact that students are willing to forgo thousands of dollars in salary, the prospect of their future professional opportunities – it shows how dire the situation is.”

In a joint letter to Lee C. Bollinger, the university president, representatives Adriano Espaillat, Jerrold Nadler and Grace Meng, all Democrats from New York, called on the university to negotiate in good faith with union members. . They also stressed the importance of hard-working students for the reputation of the elite and the stability of the university.

“As we work to recover from a global pandemic, it is essential that these long negotiations end and result in a fair deal,” they wrote.

Students said the strike affected core undergraduate courses, especially larger introductory courses that rely on graduate instructors for scoring.

They said they were exasperated and nervous about having incomplete grades, but directed most of their irritation to college.

Izel Pineda, a second-year student at Barnard College majoring in neuroscience, said she felt the university had not provided enough advice on what would happen to undergraduates whose graduate instructors were on strike.

She said she and her friends believed the university was trying to use undergraduate frustration to pressure the union to end the strike, citing an email across the board campus this week which was linked to a anonymous opinion piece in the Columbia Daily Spectator, written by a student criticizing the strike.

“Colombia has left undergraduates to fend for themselves and soften the relationship between the strike and the undergraduate class,” Ms. Pineda said.

Julia Hoyer, Barnard’s second-year history major, said the conflict had marred a return to in-person learning.

“It was a tough adjustment at the start,” she said. “But then, with the threat of incomplete because Columbia won’t pay its graduate students a living wage, it’s just unfair to everyone involved.”

The university and the union have been negotiating through a federal mediator for about two weeks. With the end of the semester quickly approaching, the two expressed their eagerness to close a deal.

“We are committed to working as hard as possible to reach a fair and just deal as soon as possible to end the disruption of undergraduate studies and activities on campus,” said Mr. Schell. “We welcome the union’s willingness to work for a compromise.

The union, for its part, offered a new contract on Tuesday that its members said contained significant concessions.

“We want a contract as quickly as possible, but we need one that really gives us the reasonable package our union has fought for,” said Jackson Miller, doctoral student in materials science and member of the union bargaining committee. “We will continue to fight until our demands are met.”


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