#WhyDSA – Interview With a Columbia Striker

By Marian J

Last month, graduate students workers at Columbia University went on a one week strike after two years of fighting for union recognition. At large private universities, graduate students manage and operate most functions of the institution, yet Columbia has refused to bargain with or recognize the students’ union. I interviewed DSA and Graduate Workers of Columbia organizer Tyler Curtis to hear his take on this labor battle.

What are the graduate workers’ grievances?

For one thing, there’s no real recourse for gender-based misconduct on campus, which is something we could rectify with a contract. We want a contractually-obligated grievance procedure and a neutral third-party arbitrator, because right now it’s really just the university overseeing the process. Another big issue is late pay. Ultimately what a lot of this comes down to, whether it’s late pay, or sexual harassment, health or dental insurance, is that, without a union,we have no say in our working conditions.

What are your thoughts on the excuses the university has given for not wanting to recognize the union? The first being that graduate students are students, not workers, and therefore don’t have legal standing to unionize.

I don’t wholly believe they are making these arguments in good faith. These are serious intellectuals who have somehow risen to the ranks of administrators, and they really can’t hold two thoughts in their head at the same time? Yeah I’m a student but I also receive a taxed salary from Columbia who is also my employer. One can do both: I was a preceptor for an undergraduate fiction course, I go to class, I produce research, I go to work everyday, and grade papers, in exchange for a modest taxed salary. Without our work, without our labor – this university could not function and that was the point of the strike. Some programs all but shut down completely without our work.

They have also argued that unionizing would undermine the advisor-advisee relationship between graduate students and professors.

There’s a lot of posture over the ‘sanctity’ of the advisor-advisee relationship. The administration talks up this sacred relationship but, as we’ve seen, when workers experience sexual harassment, when they’re paid late, when their advisors decide they don’t want to work with them anymore, or get a job elsewhere and suddenly the graduate workers are without funding, the university hasn’t sufficiently stepped in or cited the sanctity of this relationship in defense of the workers. If this relationship was so sacred to the Columbia administration, they would welcome a union contract to improve the conditions of graduate workers, so  that they could better participate in this relationship.

The university appears to be using the election of Trump and the conservative commissioners he appointed to the NLRB in order to invalidate GWC’s 2016 victory. Have they responded to the allegation that they’re aligning themselves with the right?

It’s not something they want to dignify with an answer and I think their lack of response is an admission of their cynicism in this regard.

What are the next steps and how has the university responded? Was this strike a success?

Yes I think it was a resounding success, we had massive picket lines every day. In this process tons of new leadership emerged, tons of enthusiasm was generated. The union for a lot of people really feels like this tangible material thing, not this abstract idea. It’s out there and our power is real… I think it’s clear that we’re winning. As for next steps, keep an ear out!

As a final question, what have you personally learned from this?

One thing I’ve taken from this is – log-off. Get offline, have one-on-one conversations with your fellow workers and listen. It’s so crucial not to proselytize and to really hear the material concerns of your colleagues. We’re workers not in an abstract sense, but in a very material way, and we need to engage each other on that same level.