Columbia student workers are taking back their union

  • May 8, 2021

Education & Emancipation

In a historic vote, student workers at Columbia University reclaim their union from the bureaucrats, reversing a trend of top-down union organizing.

Grad workers on strike at the Columbia University campus in New York, USA – 16 March, 2021. Photo by Rommel Nunez

I remember the first time I attended a general meeting of our union bargaining unit Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) back in 2016. The small hall inside Columbia University’s Casa Hispanica was overflowing with members, while the meeting was carefully managed by union staff and volunteer organizers. The presentation had the feel of a TEDx event, with a question and answer session at the end, but no democratic space for free deliberation and discussion.

Coming from social movement spaces in South Africa, I was confused why such meetings were controlled information sessions, rather than facilitated engagements where everyone’s viewpoint was taken into account.

I remember, also, at that first meeting, a graduate student organizer making a long speech about getting better pay and benefits. She ended this speech with her favorite tag-line, something I would hear over and over during the course of the next few years: “We need this union because we need dental [insurance].”

In conversation after the meeting, I naively told the first union organizer I met that one of my goals when getting involved was to organize a unit-wide referendum in favor of a boycotting and divesting from apartheid Israel. I remember that this organizer immediately responded with suspicion and that, from then on, the umbrella union’s paid organizers subtly designated me as a radical who should be kept on the periphery of union authority.

Is it the union that makes you strong?

A few months after the meeting, we officially voted in favor of unionization with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the United States federal agency in charge of regulating unions and collective bargaining in the private sector. Through this vote, GWC legally affiliated Local 2110, a union local of the United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest labor organizations in the United States.

It was then that I realized that this focus on easy material wins like dental and the side-lining of “non-workplace” issues such as Palestine, gentrification, international student issues and police presence on campus was a specific strategy to depoliticize the union and bring it under the control of UAW’s Administrative Caucus (AC). This caucus has governed the UAW since it was established by Walter Reuther seventy years ago.

From the 1950s onwards, every UAW president and almost every representative on the International Executive Board — the body that manages the day-to-day operations of the international union — has been a member of this caucus. It is almost impossible to work your way up the union leadership ranks without being part of this caucus.

The politics of the AC is simple: build as large a union membership-base as possible while ensuring the union maintains a mutually beneficial relationship with the employer. The underlying belief is that managing your base of workers will allow union leadership to ensure labor peace and help both the employer and the union flourish. The key word is “symbiosis.” It is this corporatist union compromise of the Fordist era that has been maintained well into the neoliberal era of austerity, restructuring, lay-offs and outsourcing.

Within Graduate Workers of Columbia, this politic was expressed as the service-model of union organizing: get people to join the union, make sure they become dues-paying members, and then service their individual needs and grievances via the contract. Student-workers are not encouraged to get involved unless they are willing to informally defer to the experience and authority of union staff and become a service agent for members. Strikes are discouraged, except as an empty threat to management to give the impression that the leadership is doing all it can to win a decent contract.

We make the union strong

Fast forward to March 2021. The Columbia administration’s bargaining team had refused to concede to any of our core demands, despite our side having made major concessions on almost every contract article. At this point, even the most conservative elected representatives on the GWC Bargaining Committee were willing to go on a limited strike.

Yet, after only a few weeks on strike, the majority of the GWC Bargaining Committee (BC) accepted mediation and called off the strike just before the final grading period, when our labor power is strongest. The ensuing mediation process quickly devolved into further concessions on just about every issue: giving up a wage increase above inflation; surrendering on dental coverage; dropping the demand for neutral arbitration for abuse and harassment; and allowing Columbia to exclude hundreds of hourly and casual student-workers from our unit who had already been formally recognized by the NLRB. The union’s BC and Columbia agreed to a tentative agreement after less than two weeks of mediation.

For the GWC Bargaining Committee and the staff bureaucrats in UAW who have been advising them, all this was par for the course; they knew that only a single UAW bargaining unit in the last 30 years has rejected a contract recommended by its BC. They thought, surely, that their own unit would toe the line. Indeed, their service model of organizing had made sure that members would follow their lead. And to make sure any alternative remained impossible, the BC rushed through the contract vote, allowing only a full day to review the contract before voting began and manipulating the ballot to advise members to vote in favor of the agreement.

However, on 30 April, only hours before the start of Mayday, the electronic voting results were revealed: 1,093 members voted to reject the agreement while only 970 voted to accept.

It is now time to take the union back from the bureaucrats.

Resurgent unionism

For about 40 years, the labor union movement in the United States has been in disarray, particularly after Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. As the neoliberal era signaled the demise of Fordism, unions throughout the country shed millions of members and entered into weak, concessionary contracts.

However, the past five years has seen a resurgence of union activity, especially teachers’ union strikes in Chicago, West Virginia and Los Angeles. Everywhere we have seen an increase in union activity, one thing has remained consistent: rank-and-file union members have rejected traditional leadership and re-emerged as organizations accountable, not only to their members, but also to the wider community. This approach has meant the rebuilding of worker-community alliances that had been negated by half a century of corporate unionism.

United Teachers of Los Angeles has referred to their model of social justice unionism which drove their hugely successful 2019 strike as “bargaining for the common good”. Simply put: We are all in this together.

This precedence has shown that when unions take up community issues directly as their own, communities respond by backing workers’ economic demands. Union activists have drawn on the power of social movement oriented unionism in much of the global South, and in particular the 1980s labor mobilizations in South Africa and more recent union-community alliances in much of South America. The overwhelming support of Los Angeles residents for the teachers’ strike could only emerge from this broader understanding of worker struggles.

The synergy of social movement unionism in the US has finally begun to reverse decades of decline in union power and real wages.

Unionism in a time of Covid-19 austerity

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Workplaces across the world were suddenly threatened by job-losses and renewed austerity. At Columbia, the administration forced many faculty to forgo wage increases, summarily stripped academic departments of funding and limited department hiring and intake of new PhD candidates.

In bargaining with Graduate Workers of Columbia, the university claimed that they did not have money for wage increases, or even dental insurance. This despite a reported $310 million increase in its endowment for 2020 — a healthy 5.5 percent return on its assets. Somehow the Administrative Caucus’ strategy of focusing on the key bread-and-butter issues fell flat on its face.

Refusing to take up a clear set of bottom lines posed by rank-and-file members, the BC continued to make extensive concessions while hundreds remained on the picket line, thereby undermining the strike effort. Without the BC foregrounding a common good strategy of movement building, our strike was limited to the withdrawal of labor and failed to take advantage of the power of solidarity actions from other students, from faculty and from beyond the university.

This gave the university administration space to institute various strike-breaking strategies, the most controversial being the online attestation system where student workers report on whether or not they have worked in order to receive their pay. In other contexts, even other workplaces, this attestation system might have seemed innocuous, yet within the United States’ university system where department self-management and autonomy were entrenched after decades of struggle, this kind of administrative surveillance of academic workers is rare.

To see where this is going, one has only to look at the British university system, where academic workers are forced to report their work to the central non-academic administration and where government now has oversight over curriculum in order to prevent “extremist” views from being espoused by faculty, workers and students. There is an unstated threat that this attestation process becomes the new management norm at Columbia.

A strong social movement union, however, would have made the links between this new attestation system and student and faculty passion for academic freedom and autonomy, potentially mobilizing thousands of new people to take coordinated action against the administration.

We are the union. We are the university

The expansive power of last week’s rank-and-file rejection of the tentative contract cannot be understated. We did not just reject a lousy contract; we rejected an entire model of top-down union organizing.

This week, the referendum was followed up with a rank-and-file petition which called for the resignation of the current Bargaining Committee and new elections. After days of overwhelming pressure including over 500 signatories, the BC eventually relented and formally resigned. Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (CAWDU), the reform caucus within GWC, is now spearheading these new elections as well as the adoption of bylaws meant to entrench an open, democratic and accountable culture within the union.

From this point onwards, we are asserting member power to remake the union in our own image. But if we are the union, we are also the university. In alliance with other workers, students, with the community of Harlem, and in solidarity with movements in other parts of the world, we can open up space to challenge the balance of power currently in favor of management. The beginnings of such a coalition — a rent strike timed in conjunction with a student-worker wildcat strike — were put in place during last years’ lockdown. But, as of yet, a real worker-community movement remains mostly aspirational.

What would the kind of university we aspire to look like? It will be much more than a challenge to the neoliberal governmentality and the casualization of faculty in favor of administrative expansion. It would be a question of not only taking power, but also creating new forms of popular power, thereby displacing the administration itself. It would mean enacting democratic, decolonial and community-run visions that have been foregrounded by movements such as Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa.

Yet, we remain far from achieving such ideals. Voting “no” has only opened the door to this possibility. The rank-and-file are not in control yet; it is up to us, collectively, to take the next steps.

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