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Low Wages and Exploitative Conditions Are Sparking Graduate Student Strikes

Whatever gains the striking union at Columbia University wins will be looked to as a model by other campus efforts.

Student workers participate in a picket action at Columbia University in New York on December 8, 2021.

The U.S. university, imbued with the ethos of managerialism, has increasingly become a corporate enterprise in the guise of an intellectual steward. The infiltration of the priorities of capital into college administrations, underway since the onset of the neoliberal era, has incentivized forbidding tuition rates and the cultivation of a precarious workforce, subjecting many of those who perform the actual labor of the academic profession to intolerable strain.

Here are some facts, much remarked-upon, that nonetheless bear repeating: U.S. student debt has reached inconceivably vast proportions. Even advanced schooling is far from a guarantor of future financial security; for those aspiring scholars fortunate enough to find any employment at all, those prospects are overwhelmingly of becoming adjunct or contingent faculty — highly stressed and low-paid. Romanticized notions of academe belie the dim conditions endured by the bulk of actual academics. For most, tenure remains a dim hope.

Many graduate students find themselves caught between these multiple fronts: burdened with past student debt, earning sub-living-wage pay in their present work and facing dwindling future opportunities. Universities have grown over-reliant on graduate students and other contingent faculty to maintain a pool of low-cost labor. But an upswell of organizing activity in the last year indicates that graduate students have been emboldened to take a collective stand against the precarity and untenable conditions that mar the academic experience in the U.S.

New York’s private Columbia University has been at the forefront of these unfolding dynamics. There, the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers (SWC-UAW) Local 2110 are engaged in an ongoing strike — the fourth since the union’s 2016 founding — that’s now stretching into its sixth week, punctuated by a picket action on December 8 that sought to reiterate union demands. Months of negotiations with the university have produced little beyond a tentative agreement, ultimately rejected by the union, and mounting friction.

Organizing at the New University

Throughout long bouts of mediation, the organizers of the SWC-UAW have been contending with predictable administrative intransigence and anti-union broadsides. Local 2110 has launched two successive actions in 2021: The first strike, in March, which aimed to address working conditions, was met with a freeze on raises, in what union organizers assert is clear retaliation. After filing two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government agency that enforces U.S. labor law, the union instigated the current strike, both on the basis of the ULPs and to reassert their economic concerns. The administration enjoined this legally protected action with yet more retribution — this time, threats of illegal firing — which organizers promptly answered with a third ULP.

This volleying derives in part from the Columbia administration’s unwillingness to sanction wage adjustments that would sustain their critical labor force. Their self-sabotaging refusal continues, despite the fact that Columbia sits on an endowment that exceeds $14 billion. That sum is not atypical for top private schools — Harvard’s is $40 billion; Yale, Stanford, Princeton and other venerable universities all boast endowments ranging in the tens of billions, and invest them to lucrative effect. Columbia’s investment returns last year were an astonishing 32 percent.

Yale and Stanford, however, pay their graduate students comparatively well. Comparative literature Ph.D. student Dennis Hogan has been organizing with Brown University’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union, the Graduate Labor Organization (GLO-AFT), since 2015. Until November, he was the union’s elected political director on its inaugural executive board. “Private schools,” Hogan pointed out in an email to Truthout, “especially those with large endowments, have in many instances proved willing to offer wage and benefit increases either as an attempt to head off a union threat or in union negotiations.”

So far, however, Columbia has declined the route of compromise. The depth of the school’s coffers draws an unflattering contrast: Graduate students say they are paid as little as $29,000 a year. The SWC-UAW is agitating for a $45,000 wage floor with 3 percent yearly increases, along with minimum $26 an hour for hourly workers, up from the current $15. Their additional demands (better health care provisions, including vision and dental, and neutral arbitration for harassment and discrimination cases) are no petty concerns: Inadequate protections and power imbalances in misconduct handling systemic issues at Columbia and elsewhere, and the denial of health care places students directly at risk.

Truthout spoke to second-year sociology Ph.D. student and SWC-UAW member Jonathan Ben-Menachem, who is active in the union’s cost-of-living and communications working groups. “We aren’t even asking for pay that reaches the point of cost of living in New York City,” he noted — which is, of course, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.

According to Ben-Menachem, the union’s concerns have been treated dismissively by administrators during the mediation process. Since 2016, Columbia has also seen fit to pay $1,500 an hour to lawyer Bernard Plum of the firm Proskauer Rose, who has represented The New York Times, Disney, Pacific Gas & Electric and other major corporations in anti-union litigation.

Local 2110’s eminently reasonable requests have been echoed by supporters among tenured faculty in the English and philosophy departments, among others, as well as New York Rep. Jerry Nadler (and reliable labor fan Danny DeVito). Ben-Menachem described “a faculty rally where tenured professors came out and emphasized how small and reasonable our demands are.” Nevertheless, SWC-UAW proposals have been largely rebuffed by the administration; when the latter has responded, it’s been with lowball offers.

These tensions at Columbia are occurring at a fault line of austerity, the casualization of academic labor and an amassing momentum of collective action. The same patterns are in evidence across academia. New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) went on strike in spring 2021, also seeking pay and benefits improvements, and to debar the administration from calling in the New York City Police Department for minor incidents. That strike resulted in a contract that closely resembled Columbia’s goals: a $26 an hour minimum wage and near-complete health care coverage, along with other wins.

In October, the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU), also represented by the UAW, launched a three-day strike at their own institution, the second action in two years. Another strike was averted when a tentative agreement was reached after eight months of negotiations. In a display of solidarity, members of the GSOC and the HGSU joined Columbia students on the picket line last Wednesday, as did representatives of Brown University’s GLO-AFT.

Rithika Ramamurthy is the president of the GLO-AFT. “The graduate labor force after 2008 has consistently been confronted with a decimated job market and a climate of austerity that universities themselves create,” she told Truthout. “But grad workers are becoming radicalized in the same way many workers are right now. Why, many grads are asking themselves, do I have to make poverty wages or not have dental care when my employer can afford to hire a football coach with a million-dollar salary, or is scoring record returns on their investments?

Graduate students have woven new threads of solidarity as they come to recognize the entangled nature of their respective efforts. Only through concerted collective action have students won fair treatment, and those at other schools have taken notice. To the same ends, analogous struggles have been waged this year by the Graduate Workers Organizing Cooperative at Colorado State University. On December 16, MIT students declared their intention to form a union, which they’ve asked the school to recognize voluntarily. In May, a majority of the 17,000 University of California students in Student Researchers United voted to unionize, and were just awarded recognition in early December. And last year, the GLO-AFT at Brown, where Ramamurthy and Hogan organize, won graduate students a successful union contract, securing job protections, COVID funds and an independent grievance mechanism — and in the process, spearheading union efforts at the Ivy League.

The Plundering of Higher Education

Underlying these interconnected fights is a pernicious and totalizing trend: the corporatization of the university. Idealized notions of academia have served to obscure the reality that academic work, teaching and research, is a labor like any other, whether performed by tenured professors or graduate students. Yet graduate student teaching positions, despite their towering workloads and sub-minimum-wage pay, have long been construed as a privilege for talented students, with the implication that they should accept their circumstances with deferential gratitude. But the teaching assistant’s role has evolved away from that of the apprentice hand-selected for intellectual cultivation — they have now been instrumentalized as an essential labor pool, effectively serving as academic temps, and earning a pittance in return. In a 2014 speech to an adjunct union, Noam Chomsky explained how the reliance on adjuncts and grad students is “part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility” — a workforce kept “cheap and vulnerable.”

Mythologies of the “life of the mind,” which have utility in instilling self-sacrificing attitudes among the workforce, persist — but the exploitation, impossible to ignore, has created a shift in consciousness. “Recognizing your lack of control over your work and its conditions is a key component in working to change it alongside others,” Ramamurthy said. “That is also what creates solidarity between grads across institutions. We are all living in the wake of the decisions made by people that plundered higher education.”

Whatever prestige their vocation offers, the grim reality is that graduate teaching assistants and adjunct professors often qualify as the working poor, living at or below the poverty line. “[T]he conditions … have been deteriorating for some time,” Hogan said. “There is really no longer any incentive being offered to those who keep their heads down and don’t cause trouble, at least not on any systemic scale.” The shifting self-perception of graduate students — viewing themselves, increasingly, as laborers — has prepared the ground for organizing.

“The university is totally invested in you believing the idea that you are, first and foremost, an individual receiving an education … not a member of the workforce that makes it run,” Ramamurthy said.

Universities only undermine the quality, diversity, and sustainability of their own core functions by refusing even to pay a fair wage to workers who conduct the essential work of teaching and research. Fair pay for student teachers and adjuncts is also an issue of racial and gender equality — a living wage allows students with fewer familial resources, often those of marginalized identities, to pursue the same avenues that have long been available to the privileged.

Yet at Columbia and elsewhere, says Ben-Menachem, even if a living wage were on offer, “We would still be precarious. People are swimming in undergraduate student debt.” Undergraduate tuition rates at Columbia are some of the highest in the nation, and the cost of universities nationwide has become usurious. Cuts in state funding have helped ensure that this is also the case at public universities. Between 1985 and 2017, the average cost of attending a four-year college in the United States rose 497 percent. Correspondingly, average student debt has more than tripled since 1970; since 2003, the total extent of the national student loan debt has grown by 602 percent. According to statistics from the Education Data Initiative, individual debt, among 43.2 million students, now averages $39,351.

This pincer attack of precarity — abyssal debts and abysmal pay — is traceable to the prerogatives of corporate management models adopted by universities. Corporatism has wormed its way into an institution that was once a more or less affordable public good, and that offered viable career paths. That arrangement has all but collapsed.

Upon graduating with an advanced degree, outlooks for would-be academics do not improve. True to corporate form, instructional budgets have been continually downsized (or, in the euphemism, been subject to “academic prioritization”) with the humanities particularly impacted. According to New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy organization, “contingent” workers — non-tenure-track instructors, part-time adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants — now make up three-quarters of college faculty.

A 2016 report from the American Association of University Professors found that “the average part time faculty member earned $16,718” from one employer, forcing adjuncts to work at multiple schools, or take multiple jobs. “Nearly one-quarter of adjunct faculty rely on public assistance, and 40 percent struggle to cover basic household expenses,” Inside Higher Ed reported. An overreliance on these faculty to keep labor costs down has produced an alienated academic underclass. As Malcolm Harris wrote in his 2017 book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, “Graduate students are highly represented among this new precarious class of teachers; with so much debt available to them, universities can force them to scrape by on sub-minimum wage fellowships, which makes grad students a great source of cheap instructional labor.”

Burgeoning student debt and low academic pay are well-known pressures. Perhaps less commonly understood is that the revenues from the twin forces of spiraling tuition rates and instructional spending cuts often go to further inflating the already-bloated ranks of administrators: a bureaucratic regime of make-work managers with salaries that far more closely resemble those of their corporate counterparts than of their faculty colleagues. In parallel, the devotion of revenues to “student services” allows for the construction of flashy amenities like gyms, stadiums, student centers and various luxuries that colleges have turned to in hopes of attracting applicants or compensating for a less prestigious reputation. Throughout it all, financial conditions worsen for students and the professoriate alike.

But the consequences of these machinations have become undeniable: As Student Workers of Columbia union member Rachel Himes wrote in an article for Jacobin, “If graduate students are coming to seem more and more like workers, mega-universities like Columbia are increasingly being recognized as the billionaire corporations that they are.”

Shifting Legal Terrain

As they struggle at the confluence of these factors, graduate students have been galvanized into serious labor organizing and strike activity. Graduate student unions at public schools have a history that stretches back to at least 1969; the 1970s also saw some early efforts at private universities. But for over a decade, legal protections for unionizing at private schools were disallowed by precedent. In 2004, weighing whether to certify an organizing effort at Brown University, a Republican-dominated NLRB ruled that graduate students were exclusively students — not workers — denying them the legal right to hold union elections and bargain collectively. Universities were happy to concur. (There has been a similar NLRB back-and-forth on the question of whether adjuncts were “managers” and thus could not unionize.)

After the 2004 ruling, graduate student organizers had no choice but to pursue voluntary recognition from their schools, which is all too easily ignored. During those years, New York University (for the second time) became the only private school with unionized graduate employees when the Graduate Student Organizing Committee won recognition in 2014. It was only in 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, that the reversal of the Brown decision allowed for the certification of unions at private schools; reinvigorated organizing soon followed. The replacement of the unfriendly Trump NLRB — which had proposed in 2019 to again declassify graduate students from worker status — is a major driver of the recent spate of organizing activity. Biden’s NLRB, which revoked the 2019 proposal, promises to allow for, at minimum, a marginally less hostile legal environment.

In fact, the NLRB’s critical 2016 reversal of the Brown decision hinged on a certification petition from Columbia’s very same UAW Local 2110, then known as the Graduate Workers of Columbia University. The union has long held a place at the forefront of the graduate student movement. Even in those difficult intervening years between 2004 and 2016, it was their sustained efforts, in parallel with dogged organizing at other private universities, that helped build pressure on the NLRB to dismantle the legal barrier.

Since then, Local 2110 has welcomed undergraduates into their ranks, becoming the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW). It now counts around 3,000 students of all kinds in its membership. (The aim of recognizing undergraduate course assistants is first and foremost to extend solidarity, but also to limit the school’s ability to further casualize labor by shifting work to undergrads if grad-student teaching assistants win better protections.) Last year, Columbia’s graduate and undergraduate students stood together on a tuition strike of historic proportions aimed at protesting the prevailing working conditions, as well as racial justice issues. But it is not only the case that the Columbia administration has simply been immovable — its actions, claim SWC-UAW organizers, have extended into illegal retaliation, resulting in ULP charges that will be settled at the NLRB.

Sparring With Administrators

SWC-UAW Local 2110’s earlier strike in March had ended in a tentative agreement — which was, however, ultimately rejected by union members. Rank-and-file displeasure with the agreement led that bargaining committee to step down. During those negotiations, Columbia had protested that the pandemic had devastated their finances — but “it turned out,” said Ben-Menachem, “that Columbia earned $3 billion during the last year.” The university had misrepresented its financial situation, extracting concessions by leading the union “to bargain on factually incorrect terms.”

A pattern of disingenuous maneuvering has arisen. During the spring strike, administrators froze a 3 percent compensation increase in retaliation. Then, over the summer, the school effected an abrupt change in graduate assistant pay structure, doing away with a lump-sum stipend. The longstanding stipend arrangement had subtly furthered a sense that graduate pay was a gift, rather than due wages — but, that said, it did grant strikers an advantage. By making all pay biweekly, says Ben-Menachem, the university deployed “a mechanism to punish strikers and make sure that we don’t get paid. In the past we had the lump sum, so if we’re on strike, they can’t deprive us of wages … But because our pay is already so low, even without a strike, students were already going into debt.”

In tandem with the pay restructuring, the university required “attestation” — meaning that employees “have to say, ‘I am not striking, I’ve been working,’ in order to get paid,” Ben-Menachem continued. “Withholding attestation is how the union demonstrates its power. The university is actively counting how many people are attesting or not when they gauge what kind of concessions they want to give us.”

The most recent strike, ongoing since November 3, is responding to the same pay and benefits concerns, but is also proceeding on the grounds of an unfair labor practice charge related to the summer’s pay changes. In early December, an administrator sent an email threatening that those who remained on strike by December 10 would be denied work assignments. Replacement of strikers on an unfair labor practice strike is illegal, and, in fact, constitutes another ULP. The administration contends that the strike is purely an economic one, and replacement is therefore allowable. SWC-UAW is filing a third ULP in response.

Other bad-faith administrative actions have included promising “movement” on concessions, only to bring a previously rejected agreement to the table — after which the provost emailed the entire university claiming unreasonableness on the part of the union. Columbia also rejected a nondiscrimination and harassment proposal which would have allowed for student choice of arbitrators to make a neutral review of findings.

All this culminated in the December 8 picket, which remained peaceful, despite another widely disseminated email in which the administration claimed, baselessly, that the action was violent. In the wake of this latest action, the school presented the union a contract offer: a marginal pay increase (which, accounting for inflation, amounts to a pay cut), a minimum wage $4 lower and child care provisions weaker than requested, a lack of vision and dental coverage for Master’s students and a rejection of neutral arbitration, effectively allowing the university to investigate itself on discrimination and harassment. In other words, the administration is offering concessions that are marginal at best. As of this writing, SWC-UAW’s strike continues.

Administrative incorrigibility and retaliation is par for the course in campus organizing. Universities, in seeking to thwart unions, have a number of tactics at their disposal. A reliable move is to stonewall union demands, delaying until their union opponents graduate and are replaced by a less experienced crop.

“Institutional memory and turnover are definitely threats,” Ben-Menachem noted. Private universities’ massive endowments also enable them to wait out strikes or hire replacement labor. Student bodies can be divided with incentives to break bonds of solidarity for individual gain: Pressures exist to maintain relations with faculty who might write letters of recommendation or exert influence over the course of one’s career.

Still, universities’ overreliance on graduate students and adjuncts has created a weakness: Their centrality to school functioning gives them leverage. The various strata of the workforce in the modern university — tenured faculty, tenure-track, contingent or adjunct, graduate student teaching assistants, postdocs, undergraduates — make for a particular strategic alignment. Some union allies among the faculty are shielded by tenure, while students hold power as paying customers, as Columbia students demonstrated with their tuition strike. Undergraduates and faculty can also refuse to act as replacement workers, as administrators are quick to turn to them when graduate students withhold their labor. Sympathetic students can show solidarity by being patient with delays on grades and classes; many at Columbia have done so, out of the understanding that it is the university that is forcing the issue. Undergraduates and student groups like Columbia’s GS (Gay Straight) Alliance have also helped fundraise and signaled support. Possible avenues of solidarity also exist with other university service and clerical employees.

The Student Workers of Columbia are engaged in a critical fight: Whatever gains the Columbia union is able to win will be looked to as a model by other campus efforts, and the NLRB’s resolution of the ULP charges could establish a significant precedent, says Ben-Menachem: “An unfavorable ruling for Columbia would have pretty big and terrible implications for graduate labor organizing generally — if we got an unfavorable determination, it could ripple out into all the other case law. We know that our contract affects everyone else.”

The administration of Columbia University was contacted for comment in responses to the claims made by Columbia students in this article but did not respond by press time.

Visions of a Better Academia

If universities continue their mutation into profit-seeking corporate entities, administrators should expect antagonisms to sharpen. The shift has come at the expense of the workers who are the engines of their institutions, and their resistance will only mount. For many, ideological blinders have fallen away. The corporatized university is just that: a corporation, however shrouded in rhetoric that paints schools as the hallowed custodians of intellectual production.

Reorienting colleges towards egalitarian pedagogy, rather than transactional exchange and status-building, will require moving away from the destructive competitiveness, exclusivity and market logic that has insinuated itself into the academic field. “The horizon must be making grad school a secure, stable job that allows people to live securely, start families, begin saving for retirement and generally enter adulthood on steady footing,” Hogan says. “I think that the future of this movement depends on leveraging our political power to make wealthy universities into institutions that truly serve the public rather than just hoarding money, power and prestige.”

Hogan cites new efforts like Higher Ed Labor United, a national coalition of academic unions from across the country. Broadening solidarities have already hinted at possibilities for transformative change. “There’s an extraordinary amount of natural solidarity that exists among grads at different institutions,” he added. “I think we’ll see the emergence of larger, sectoral organizations that hope to influence the higher ed landscape at scale.”

At Columbia, “My experience organizing with SWC has been pretty unforgettable,” Ben-Menachem told Truthout. “I’m in awe of the people I organize with, who have spent hundreds of hours fighting for a contract that will mostly benefit workers who haven’t even arrived here yet … We have developed strong bonds of solidarity, and I think our union will be an important site of ongoing mobilization for all of us. I think we’ve been able to give undergraduates one of the most meaningful educational experiences outside of the Columbia curriculum — now they know what a picket line is!”

The will to collective action now reemergent on the campus represents a path toward reversing the trends of exorbitant tuition, an exploited contingent labor pool and the concentration of power in administrative hands. The fight will demand solidarity over competition, universality over meritocracy. Labor organizing is the vector of change for working people — and graduate students and their allies among the faculty and student body are witnessing its power firsthand.

Note: Readers can donate to the Student Workers of Columbia strike fund here.


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