Graduate workers at New York University and Columbia University, the two largest universities in New York City, are in the midst of a contentious labor battle with their administrations to eliminate the economic uncertainty, which has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The NYU Graduate Student Organizing Committee, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, announced on April 9 that their union members voted overwhelmingly—with 96.4 percent of the vote—to authorize a strike because contract negotiations have dragged on for the past nine months.

The strike vote came after NYU administrators rejected proposals for improvements to compensation, working conditions, paid vacation and leave, healthcare, and several other issues.

In 2002, NYU’s graduate workers union became the first union of graduate students to win a contract at a private American university. 

“We know how hard learning conditions are for our undergrads because we, as graduate students, have been experiencing them ourselves. We wouldn’t be discussing a strike or even a strike authorization vote if we didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary to get NYU to finally take our needs seriously,” said Chloe Jones, a graduate worker in NYU’s American Studies program.

“Life as a graduate worker at NYU has always been hard, but this past year has been especially challenging. We’ve had graduate workers who have been displaced from their housing, who have faced serious health emergencies, and who have been struggling to get by and support their children on poverty wages.”

Jones continued, “I consider myself extremely fortunate compared to many of my peers, but last fall I was zooming into classes from a rental car on my cellphone while I was fleeing forest fires on the west coast because NYU did nothing to help me with my technology costs or my housing needs.”

Anila Gill, a graduate worker in Cinema Studies at NYU and a bargaining committee member, noted that in 2014, NYU reached an agreement the night before due to the overwhelming support from graduate workers in favor of the strike. The agreement came after a strike was authorized.

In an email, a spokesperson for NYU argued the union has refused to budge on their list of demands and should continue negotiating at the bargaining table. 

“The University thinks the strike vote is an unfortunate development and in the spirit of advancing the negotiations calls on GSOC to stop rejecting the presence of a neutral, mutually-agreed upon mediator to help bring our contract negotiations to a successful conclusion. In prior agreements with UAW units, including the prior contract with this bargaining unit, the presence of a mediator helped hasten a successful conclusion,” the spokesperson claimed. 

The union argued mediation typically requires closed bargaining, which they oppose so that graduate workers can attend the bargaining sessions. They view the administrators’ request as an additional bureaucratic hurdle, which is part of NYU’s stalling of negotiations.

As Gill put it, “Their offers still fall short of a living wage or healthcare provisions that will not deplete our insufficient wages.” 

Dominic Walker, a graduate worker at Columbia University in the Sociology Department, explained that every summer as a teaching assistant his compensation is based on a nine-month appointment based on the academic school year. 

“What tends to happen over the summer in my situation [is] workers have to leave New York and sublet their apartment or take up another job while doing research, which pulls them away from their research,” Walker shared. “It would be nice if that ended.” 

Despite living in an apartment owned by the university, he and other graduate workers struggle to pay rent during the summer. It is a point of contention Walker and the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110 are fighting over during contract negotiations.

The union began a strike on March 15, which was overwhelmingly authorized in March 2020 with a vote of 1,833 to 77 after two years of bargaining with the university administration, which has yet to produce the union’s first labor contract.

The strike received support from several public officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who declined to participate in a virtual panel discussion at Columbia University in solidarity with the striking workers.

In a controversial 7-3 vote by the union bargaining committee, the strike was paused on April 3 to continue mediation, despite opposition from rank and file members.

Some workers, including the Religion Department at Columbia, issued statements that they indicated they would keep striking.

“We want a living wage,” tweeted an account created on Twitter to share testimonials from graduate workers at Columbia University in response to the strike pause.

The account has shared stories of graduate workers struggling to make ends meet, working additional jobs, taking out large amounts of debt to cover cost of living expenses, and delaying dental and medical care because they can’t afford it. 

“I do not understand the reasons for a pause, given the strike assistance fund and growing hardship fund,” said Ameya Tripathi, a graduate worker at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia ‘If anything, the rank-and-file members are furious and are organizing against the Bargaining Committee’s decision.’’

The graduate workers at Columbia University have been at the forefront of fighting for graduate students to be recognized as workers in the United States and for their unions to be recognized as higher education in the U.S. increasingly relies on low or underpaid workforces.

“The big picture vision of who graduate students are has to change. There’s this false notion that we are in suspended adolescence,” added Walker. 

He referred to adjunct faculty and graduate workers as the “Instacart shoppers of academia,” who are kept in economically precarious positions while university administrations pay  administrative staff and executives bloated salaries. 

Columbia University has consistently fought the union organizing efforts of their graduate workers over the past several years. They disputed their classification as workers with the right to collective bargaining. They now opposetheir first union contract and have docked stipends and wages of graduate workers, who are on strike. 

In August 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled graduate workers at Columbia University are employees, not students, under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore have the right to union representation.

The decision came after the NLRB initially rejected a petition by graduate workers at the school to hold a union election in 2015. 

In a subsequent union election in December 2016, graduate workers at Columbia University voted 1,602 to 623 in favor of unionizing with the UAW, which currently represents 3,500 graduate workers at Columbia. 

Columbia University immediately filed objections in an attempt to overturn the election and didn’t come to an agreement to start bargaining with the graduate workers union until November 2018. 

“There’s a lack of movement we consistently see in coming to the table in regards to the needs of workers. We’re constantly met with resistance, telling us our economic proposal costs too much, but not actually providing numbers,” said Kinnari Shah, a member of the GWC-UAW bargaining committee. “It’s frustrating.” 

Columbia University refuses to bargain on several aspects such as healthcare benefits, claiming several issues fall under the scope of graduate workers’ roles as students. The union is also fighting for improvements to dental insurance offered to graduate workers, right to third party arbitration for discrimination and harassment, and improved compensation for graduate workers. 

Rank and file graduate workers are still raising strike funds for impacted workers in order to cover the loss of wages and stipends snatched by the university. “Our working conditions are the students’ learning conditions. It affects all the undergraduates, everyone at the university,” said Anna Hidalgo,a graduate worker in the Sociology Department at Columbia University. 

“Columbia doesn’t care. Their response has been cruelty in withholding as much as they can to try to break the union,” according to Hidalgo. 

In a Columbia University statement, the interim provost argued ongoing issues with contract negotiations revolve around graduate workers serving in roles as employees and students. 

A Columbia University spokesperson deferred comment to a university statement in an email, but did not address the issue of docked wages and stipends against those participating in the strike.

“We are committed to continuing to work toward a full and fair contract and remain confident of that outcome, notwithstanding this unnecessary and unfortunate work stoppage. Our top priorities now are supporting our undergraduates’ completion of their coursework, ensuring on-time graduation, and facing the ongoing challenges for the university posed by the pandemic.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1