Where it enters the popular imagination at all, graduate school conjures up images of isolation—the solitary graduate student, huddled over their books at 4 am, eschewing the affairs of the world in favor of the life of the mind. But isolation had no part in Tuesday’s events.
In fact, the image of the isolated graduate student has been carefully cultivated, and is tacitly relied upon by the Columbia administration’s callous insistence that the labor graduate workers perform is not, in fact, labor. When President Lee Bollinger contends that “universities are special places in that sense of having a relationship with students that is different from the employer-employee relationship, and it’s built around this scholarly temperament,” he is describing the same temperament, and the same relationship, that lead to drastically increased rates of depression and anxiety among graduate students. It is no coincidence that Columbia was home to a tragic number of suicides during the last year. The “scholarly temperament” that Columbia cultivates—and that Bollinger lauds as so worthy of protection that it justifies his ongoing violation of labor law—is the product of the abusive relationship between the university administration and the workers–and yes, students, too–on campus. The university wants us to feel isolated; as they long as the keep us separate, they can deny the power that we collectively hold.
Isolation has been a part of my experience in graduate school, as it has been a part of the experience of everyone I know at Columbia. Facing the inadequate mental health services offered by Columbia, my colleagues and I sought another way. We organized. We began to talk about our shared grievances, and built a multi-year campaign that has now led to a week-long strike by graduate workers at Columbia.
All weekend, I and my graduate and undergraduate colleagues from the 24/7 Columbia campaign participated in a four-night sit-in demanding 24-hour health services at Columbia. This morning I woke up, in my own bed at last, at 7 am, as energized as if I’d rested the entire weekend. I arrived at the picket at 9am to set up, along with other organizers, each of us carrying a box of t-shirts, an awkward handful of cardboard signs, and bottles of water for the day ahead. Our numbers grew. And grew. At 10 am, our lead picket captain for the day, Bargaining Committee member Tania Bhattacharyya, announced into the megaphone that, following the university’s continued refusal to bargain with our union, we were officially on strike.
We marched, all along the main entrance to campus, and as we marched our numbers grew. Picket leaders handed out water and sunscreen, and encouraged sociable graduate workers to picket single-file. Along with the sea of “UAW on strike” signs, people grabbed their favorite cardboard signs—”Pro-union = Anti-sexual harassment,” “Our working conditions are your learning conditions,” and the ever popular “Eat the admins”—lovingly painted by graduate workers the previous week. We chanted until our voices were sore, and then we drank some water and chanted some more. My partner and I handed the megaphone back and forth until we both got too exhausted and passed it on to other organizers. People throughout the crowd started chants, and shouted them towards one another as they passed on the line. I was fully into my second wind when we broke for the noon rally.
The speeches, from Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, a graduate worker in Latin American and Iberian Cultures, Trevor Hull, a graduate worker in Chemistry and a member of the Bargaining Committee, Sonam Singh, Bargaining Committee member from the Barnard Contingent Faculty, and Tania Bhattacharyya, Bargaining Committee member from History, reminded us again that the tale of our isolation is a lie. Before the speeches even began, members of the building trades unions arrived and led chants in solidarity.
Allen-Mossman began the speeches with a long list of thanks—beginning with everyone who came out today, and including student groups across campus, our graduate worker colleagues organizing across the country, the teachers across the country who are on strike or planning to strike, and, crucially, on the fiftieth anniversary of the second day of the occupation of Hamilton, the 1968 activists “for putting themselves at risk to demand an end to Columbia’s racist gentrification of Harlem.” She continued, “I wish we’d been able to more faithfully carry out their legacy, and honor their sacrifices…What we’re starting here, today doesn’t end here and today. How are we going to make sure Columbia doesn’t keep gentrifying Harlem? Are we really going to make sure that Black lives really matter on this campus?”
Hull spoke about his experience working with girls in middle-school across New York who come to Columbia to learn about science. From this, Hull says he has learned that “the problem with increasing diversity in the sciences is not a problem of people not being interested.” Instead, he suggests, it is the result of poor financial assistance and the lack of options for people who are sexually harassed by their PIs.”
Singh reminded us all of the importance of graduate worker unionization in addressing the precarious working conditions for workers in academia after graduation, many of whom find themselves working multiple adjunct jobs and still struggling to earn a salary that places them above the poverty line.
Bhattacharyya began her speech by announcing “I’ve been here six years, and Columbia’s never looked more beautiful than today,” Listening to her catalogue all the things we’d already won together—from dependent healthcare to annually increasing stipends to fee waivers for international students—conjured up a vision of a better future for academia, one with better dental insurance, with vision insurance, with funding for as long as our programs actually take, with affordable childcare, with transparent job descriptions and safe labs, and with protections against sexual harassment and discrimination. But also one in which, as she puts it, “We could expect to begin building this university as a place where education is not a commodity sold across the counter, but a process of critical thinking and learning…I owe my colleagues and the Graduate Workers of Columbia for making me and countless others feel heard, supported, and strong, here at Columbia University.”
As the speeches concluded, the crowd took a short lunch break, and then returned to the picket line. At 2pm, June Benjamin, member of the clerical workers union at Columbia, UAW Local 2110, spoke about her decades organizing at Columbia, from the initial drive to unionize the clerical workers in 1985. Columbia fought them tooth and nail, and our efforts to join the same Local continue that fight proudly. If nothing else has convinced onlookers that graduate workers truly are workers, this is the final test—the same union-busting tactics employed against workers for decades are being used against us now. The boss will always remind you how united you truly are. I couldn’t be prouder.