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Striking Columbia Student Workers Demand Living Wage as School’s Endowment Grows to $14 Billion

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Image Credit: Twitter: @zoexwest

In the largest strike happening right now in the United States, 3,000 student workers at New York City’s Columbia University are on their fifth week of strike. Today the student workers are calling on others to help them shut down the university. Striking student worker Johannah King-Slutzky accuses Columbia’s administration of an “illegal form of retaliation” for threatening to replace the striking student workers who do not return to work by Friday. On Monday, many Columbia faculty members walked out of their classes in a show of solidarity. “Graduate student labor is the invisible labor of the university,” says Jack Halberstam, professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University. “We’re bankrupting a whole generation in order to provide more profits for the university.”

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AMY GOODMAN: “Solidarity Forever,” sung on the picket line of the student workers at Columbia University who are on strike for a fair contract. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The largest strike in the United States is happening right now here in New York City at Columbia University. Three thousand student workers, graduate and undergraduate, are facing down the private university. They’re in their fifth week of the strike, and the stakes are rising. Columbia has threatened to replace all 3,000 of the striking student workers if they don’t return to work by Friday.

This is Paul Brown, an organizer with the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers Local 2110, speaking Monday at a protest on campus.

PAUL BROWN: If an administrator takes a sick day, you know, nothing really happens. But if a grad student takes a sick day, or like a facilities person takes a sick day, or a postdoc takes a sick day, like, classes would have to be canceled and stuff like that. And so, I guess just really kind of reorienting the perception and the culture of graduate school from, like, “Oh, we’re just students, we should be glad to be here,” to respecting the labor that we put into this institution.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, many Columbia faculty members walked out of their classes in a show of solidarity with the striking student workers and joined their picket line on the campus’s iconic College Walk. This is English professor Jack Halberstam addressing the protest.

JACK HALBERSTAM: I think it’s important that the university understand that this isn’t just about the demands that you’re making, which, by the way, are utterly reasonable demands. Cost-of-living raise, what is the problem? Right? Dental care. As someone who went into debt for root canals as a graduate student, yes, please, dental care. These are absolutely basic. And then the difficult issue of third-party arbitration. Right? And I think I understand more about that after the meeting yesterday. So, what I think is helpful is just to remind ourselves that there is a larger context within which this strike takes place. …

To student workers, I say this: We are with you. We stand with you. We see you. We fight alongside you. To faculty allies, I say: This is our fight. This is our university. This is our chance to say no to the corporate university here and now. This is not Goldman Sachs.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Jack Halberstam will be joining us in a minute. Today the student workers are calling on others to help them shut down the university from 8:00 to 6:00 by not crossing their picket line. They’re asking professors and students not to enter campus, not to go to classes, not to hold classes. One of their slogans is “New York is still a union town.” And members of other unions from around the city are expected to join in solidarity.

For more, we’re joined by the professor you just heard, Jack Halberstam, professor of English and gender studies at Columbia University, and by Johannah King-Slutzky, a Ph.D. student in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, rank-and-file member of Student Workers of Columbia.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Johannah, let’s begin with you. This is now the largest strike in the United States that’s going on right now. Can you tell us why you’re striking? It’s not actually the first strike by the Columbia students this year.

JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Yeah, that’s right. Thank you for having me on this program. So, this is our second strike this year. We struck last spring, as well. And we have really basic demands. Our priority contract articles are, as Jack mentioned in the speech that you all just heard, a raise so that we meet cost-of-living standards. We have a lower income compared to cost of living than any peer institution. We’re also asking for healthcare that includes vision and dental benefits. We’re asking for protections against sexual harassment and discrimination. And we’re asking for full unit recognition for any member who the National Labor Relations Board said should be able to join. The university has been trying to keep out some of our legal members. And we’re really motivated. As Professor Halberstam said in the speech you guys heard, we really see ourselves as part of a broader labor movement, both in higher education, which has been facing terrible trends of adjunctification and administrative overreach, and in the labor movement overall.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Johannah, could you talk about what precisely the student workers do at Columbia and what the university’s response has been to your demands?

JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Yeah. I mean, student workers, we are, I think, the majority of workers, or at least instructional workers and research workers, at the university. We are the ones who do the research that wins grant money for the university. We are teachers. We are teaching assistants, research assistants. I teach my own class. Many of my colleagues teach the same classes that a professor would teach. And we are the ones who have the most face-time with the undergraduates who are paying Columbia’s bills, paying tuition.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And increasingly, has Columbia, as many universities around the country have gone increasingly, gone to student workers and contingent lecturers instead of tenure-track faculty to teach most of their courses?

JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Yeah. It’s a huge problem in the higher ed movement. But yeah, there’s been a real shift towards hiring contingent faculty, meaning people that the university can replace very quickly and easily. They have very few rights. They make much less income. And graduate workers, as well, are facing kind of a similar onslaught. In many ways, it feels like we’re lambs being raised for the slaughter. You know, I think I, at least, and many of my colleagues feel like there’s a really good chance that we’re going to become one of these adjuncts or contingent faculty members after we graduate. And that’s one of the reasons we’re motivated in this fight.

You know, I think that we really see this as telling administrators, telling universities, that have billions and billions of dollars in reserve, that could easily afford to pay graduate workers, undergrads who TA, who pay, you know, adjuncts, they can afford to pay us a living wage. They’ve said outright that they can afford to pay us a living wage and that they just don’t think it’s prudent, that they don’t want to. And if you can afford to pay us a living wage, I don’t really understand why one of my colleagues, whether they’re a grad worker or an adjunct or a full professor, should have to do things like not take his son to the dentist because we don’t get dental coverage or because we don’t make enough money to pay for dental coverage out of pocket.

AMY GOODMAN: Johannah, I want to read an email sent by [Daniel] Driscoll, the vice president of Columbia University Human Resources, to the over 3,000 students at Columbia last week. It’s been made public. It reads, in part, “In order to plan coverage for the Spring term in a timely fashion, the following categories of student officers will receive their letter in the normal course: (a) student officers who are currently working as shown by their attestations, (b) students who are not currently on appointment, or (c) student officers who are currently on strike but return to work by December 10, as shown by their attestation for the current pay period. Please note that striking student officers who return to work after December 10, 2021 will be appointed/assigned to suitable positions if available.” Johannah, can you respond to what the university is doing? And talk about the significance of today, this day, and the action growing ever larger.

JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Yeah. You know, that email, the language sounds bland, but it was very alarming. For those who can’t speak administrator, what they’re saying is that they are planning to replace those of us who remain on strike through the end of the week. This is an illegal form of retaliation. We are on an unfair labor practice strike, which protects us from our labor being permanently replaced, and yet they’re threatening to do that very thing. You know, it’s frightening because it’s illegal, but the university has a much greater megaphone, much more power than we do, and it’s easy for them to get away with illegal activity like that.

So, we are shutting down campus today to kind of tell the university that we and other unions in the city and faculty, you know, we’re not OK with them just bulldozing over us. It’s completely not only illegal but unjust to fire, in effect, people like me. You know, I stand to lose my job, my appointment, my teaching appointment. I have my own class that I’m supposed to teach next semester, and I might not have a class to return to because I have been exercising my legally protected right to withhold my labor.

And so, we are having a massive picket. For those who are in New York City, you’re welcome to come down to our campus and join us in the picket. It’s going to be a very joyful experience. And we are asking every student and every faculty member not to cross the picket by attending class or holding class. And as Paul, in the speech that you guys shared, said, when the teachers, which is graduate students like me, when we shut down, when we stop working, the university grinds to a halt, and we really want to make that clear.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in professor Jack Halberstam into the conversation, professor of English and gender studies at Columbia University. Could you talk somewhat about the faculty response to the strike? And also, my understanding is that Columbia’s endowment right now is a little bit over $14 billion. It increased about $3 billion in the past year of the pandemic. Could you talk about the ability of the university to meet the demands of the strikers?

JACK HALBERSTAM: Yeah. Thank you, Juan. And Johannah has been very eloquent already about the fact that the university can meet the demands of the students but chooses not to. Despite the fact that the university said that it was going into a kind of financial freefall during COVID, it turns out that, along with many other corporate stakeholders, universities did very well during COVID on the stock market. And some people suggest that the endowment grew by $3.1 billion. So, we were all asked to share in austerity measures during COVID, but as often happens with corporate entities, people are not asked to share in the profits once the financial crisis is over.

And what the students are saying is that New York is an incredibly expensive place to live, and you are supposed to be offered a graduate education that does not put you in debt. Student debt right now is a tremendous burden on this generation of intellectuals. And they are also looking at a future in which, as Johannah said, their labor has been meted out to adjuncts who have no protection, very few benefits and no opportunity to save for retirement. So what we’re doing is we’re bankrupting a whole generation in order to provide more profits for the university. And this is — apart from anything else, it’s unethical.

The faculty response in the humanities and social sciences has been strong and supportive, but there is not the same response across the university. And I think many of us recognize that the university does not value the work that goes on in the humanities, in particular, in the same way that it values the work in the professional schools, which then return money to the system in many, many different forms. So what we, the faculty, are concerned about is a larger project of downsizing the humanities, the place where people get trained to think critically about the world that they live in and to think radically about how to transform it. And the grad students are absolutely aware of this and are fighting this battle on many fronts. And they expected 37 faculty at the rally the other day. There were over a hundred people there, over a hundred faculty, many of them very prominent faculty with real political commitments to this strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the letter that was sent to the Columbia College Dean James Valentini, where faculty expressed their view that the lack of graduate student labor has harmed undergraduate education and that these harms will be exacerbated if this strike isn’t resolved? Some of them are talking about not being able to grade the students, and parents now weighing in.

JACK HALBERSTAM: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what it means to teach and be a student at Columbia right now?

JACK HALBERSTAM: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, graduate student labor is the invisible labor of the university. Graduate students do everything behind the scenes of a class. I’m teaching a class right now with 90 students and three TAs. And without those TAs, I field upwards of 40 emails a day from students. Papers are not graded. Discussions sections are not held. Office hours are not held. Undergraduate education suffers immensely.

And what Johannah said is really important, which is that a lot of the teaching at Columbia is done by graduate students. So people who are paying $50,000, $60,000 a year often are being taught by a student instructor who receives $30,000 a year. They are not being taught by the Nobel Prize-winning professor upon whose reputation Columbia rests. They are often being taught by graduate students who are underpaid and undervalued.

The faculty have become very frustrated by the way that the administration is not giving us reasons for why they won’t settle with the student workers. And that, you know, is spurring these letters. That’s what’s motivating these letters. People are saying, “Hey, maybe I would even support the university. But what is the university’s position?” Nobody really knows. No message has gone out, other than “We don’t want to respond to this.” And it’s very, very frustrating as a professor. Very frustrating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Halberstam, you’ve been a tenured professor there for years now at Columbia. How does this strike compare to other protests that have come and gone at the university while you’ve been there?

JACK HALBERSTAM: I’ve only been at Columbia for five years. But there is a long history, as Professor Mae Ngai said at the rally the other day, a long history of student protest at Columbia going back to 1968, when students protested segregation policies and protested the university’s support of the Vietnam War. Those were very, very powerful protests involving hunger strikes and leading to the creation of some of the programs in race and ethnicity at Columbia. This strike —

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I’m afraid we’re going to have to end with the person you’re speaking to, who just asked you that question, Professor Halberstam, and that is our very own Juan González, who was one of the leaders of that student strike that you’re referring to in 1968, Juan.

JACK HALBERSTAM: Yes, absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and I remember Mae Ngai from those days, as well. She was quite an activist in her time, before she became a much-decorated professor and historian. But I think that it’s critical — I think back then, even some of the major professors of those days, people like Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein, were big supporters of the students, and they helped quite a bit in keeping our morale going to be able to emerge victorious in that strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Jack Halberstam, professor of English and gender studies at Columbia University, and Johannah King-Slutzky, rank-and-file member of Student Workers of Columbia, a Ph.D. student in the English and Comparative Literature Department at Columbia.

Coming up, we speak to an animal rights activist who’s just been convicted on felony charges of burglary and larceny for rescuing a sick baby goat from a goat meat farm. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Mazzafrique” by Burnt Sugar, which was led by Greg Tate, who died Tuesday at the age of 64.

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