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Student Workers of Columbia, not guaranteed jobs next term

At Columbia, tensions are rising as strikers fear retaliation from the university.

After authorities sent an email informing students who remained on strike past Friday that they would not be guaranteed jobs the next term, union members increased the pressure.

At Columbia University, striking student employees created picket lines that shut off campus entrances, preventing other students from attending class. A massive inflatable fat cat floated in the breeze as scores of motorists honked their horns in solidarity. Along an Amsterdam Avenue overpass, a 10-foot banner saying "Fair Contract Now" was unfurled.

Wednesday's protests occurred six weeks into a strike by the Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union representing approximately 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The strike, which is demanding increased salary, expanded health care coverage, and stronger protections against harassment and discrimination, has drawn the college administration into a protracted conflict with its own student body.

Wednesday's action saw the highest attendance since the strike began, with union members joined by members of student worker unions, faculty from New York University, Fordham University, and the City University of New York, as well as labor organizations such as Teamsters Local 804.

"Today, I believe, there is a genuine demonstration that we are the backbone of this university and that without us, the university would not run," said Mandi Spishak-Thomas, a doctorate student in the School of Social Work and a bargaining committee member for the union.

Student Workers of Columbia, not guaranteed jobs next term
A university administrator's communication implying that student workers who were still on strike would face job losses in the spring prompted fury on campus.

The picket line formed days after Dan Driscoll, the university's vice president for human resources, sent an email to student workers informing them that anyone who did not go to work by Friday would not be assured jobs next semester.

"Please be advised that striking student officers returning to work after December 10, 2021, will be appointed/assigned to suitable jobs when they become available," Mr. Driscoll wrote in the email.

The widely distributed email provoked indignation and suspicions that the university was retaliating against strikers.

A university spokesman, Scott Schell, contended that the university's conduct did not constitute an unfair labor practice. He highlighted the National Labor Relations Act, which states that while companies are prohibited from terminating workers for going on strike and workers are entitled to return to work after a strike ends, businesses are permitted to replace those workers while the strike continues.

"In light of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances produced by the strike, our first focus is the academic advancement of our students, particularly undergraduates whose classes are being disrupted," Mr. Schell stated. "Sending the notification announcing spring appointments and teaching assignments was important to honor that pledge."

Wilma B. Liebman, a former National Labor Relations Board chairperson, said the institution appeared to be exerting unfair pressure on student workers by hinting they would retain their positions only if they ceased striking immediately.

"To me, it's a means of instilling dread and doubt in them and coercing them to abandon the strike," Ms. Liebman explained.

Several faculty members who joined the picket line on Wednesday stated that the email inspired them to join the union's efforts. On Monday, over 100 faculty members staged their own protest on campus.

"I believe that is part of what is motivating more professors to come out," Susan Witte, a professor at the School of Social Work, explained. "It was retaliatory, it was inexcusable, and it was quite upsetting."

"As a tenured faculty member, I believe that protected employees have an obligation to speak out on behalf of other employees," Ms. Witte continued.

Local officials such as Zohran Mamdani, a state assemblyman who covers portions of Queens, also came out to demonstrate their support for picketing union members. Mr. Mamdani stated that he receives communications almost daily from people who are Columbia graduate students.

"These workers are risking everything," he added. "The fact that students are willing to forego thousands of dollars in pay, as well as the chance of future professional prospects, speaks volumes about the grave situation."

Representatives Adriano Espaillat, Jerrold Nadler, and Grace Meng, all New York Democrats, urged the university to bargain in good faith with union members in a joint letter to university President Lee C. Bollinger. Additionally, they underlined the critical role of student workers in maintaining the university's exceptional status and stability.

"As we try to recover from a worldwide pandemic," they wrote, "it is critical that these protracted negotiations complete and result in a fair accord."

Students reported that the strike has impacted undergraduate core classes, particularly bigger beginning courses that are graded by graduate instructors.

They expressed frustration and anxiety over receiving incomplete grades, but the majority of their annoyance was aimed towards the university.

Izel Pineda, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience at Barnard College, said she thought the university did not provide adequate direction regarding what would happen to undergraduates whose graduate faculty went on strike.

She and her pals believed the university was attempting to utilize undergraduates' discontent to convince the union to call off the strike, citing a campuswide email this week that linked to an anonymous opinion piece critical of the strike in the Columbia Daily Spectator.

"Columbia has been abandoning undergrads to fend for themselves, thereby minimizing the relationship between the strike and the undergrad class," Ms. Pineda explained.

Union members and instructors from other colleges joined Columbia's student employees on Wednesday's picket line.
Union members and instructors from other colleges joined Columbia's student employees on Wednesday's picket line.

Julia Hoyer, a Barnard sophomore studying in history, said the conflict had jeopardized the return to face-to-face instruction.

"It was a difficult transition to begin with," she explained. "However, the danger of incompletes as a result of Columbia's refusal to pay graduate students a living salary is simply unjust to everyone involved."

For approximately two weeks, the institution and the union have been bargaining through a federal mediator. With the semester's end swiftly approaching, both parties expressed a desire to finalize a contract.

"We are determined to doing everything necessary to negotiate a fair and equitable deal as quickly as possible to put an end to the interruption of undergraduate academics and campus life," Mr. Schell stated. "We appreciate the union's desire to reach an agreement."

For its part, the union submitted a new contract Tuesday, which members claimed included major concessions.

"We want a contract as soon as possible, but we also want one that provides us with the acceptable package that our union has fought for," said Jackson Miller, a doctorate student in material science and a bargaining committee member for the union. "We will persist in our struggle until our demands are met."

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