With the singing of “Solidarity Forever” occasionally ringing out on their picket line, some 3,000 graduate school workers at Columbia University are on strike in their quest to obtain a fair contact. As many of the university’s faculty members walked out of their classes in a show of support on Dec. 6, the strikers are calling on others to help them shut down the university by not crossing their picket line.
The strike, in its fifth week as of the beginning of December, is the second one this year by the student workers at Columbia. It is currently the largest one in the country at this time. At issue is the workers demand for cost-of-living raises, healthcare that includes vision and dental benefits, and protections against discrimination and sexual harassment. The graduate school workers teach classes, serve as teaching and research assistants, and perform duties, at much reduced pay and benefits, that many of the professors would ordinarily do. They are represented by the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers Local 2110.
Taking on the perception that the strikers are just students and not workers, Paul Brown, a Local 2110 organizer at Columbia, called on he university to “respect the labor that we put into this institution.”
The strike comes as many universities in recent years have increasingly relied on grad student workers rather than tenured professors to teach classes, thus reducing the cost to the university. “We are the ones who do the research that wins grant money for the university,” said Johannah King-Slutzky, one of the strikers in an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. “I teach my own class. Many of my colleagues teach the same classes that a professor would teach. We’re the ones who have the most face-time with the undergraduates who are paying Columbia’s bills, paying tuition.”
The school has responded with heavy-handed attempts to break the strike. The latest is an email from its Vice President of Human Resources to the strikers that if they do not return to work by Dec. 10 they will be terminated and replaced. Branding it “an illegal form of retaliation,” King-Slutzky pointed out that it is “an unfair labor practice (that) protects us from our labor being permanently replaced.”