Over the past four years we have been told steadfastly by our administration that we are not workers because we are students. We are routinely reminded of our privilege in having made it through the hallowed gates of the Ivy League, and told to be content with whimsical “enhancements” and “improvements” over which we have no say. President Bollinger and Provost Coatsworth would have done well to attend our picket and rally today- they may have learnt a thing or two about labor solidarity, and the importance of giving workers their due.
But our administrators do not want that education. Last Friday after the picket lines had closed, a group of us attended the opening session of a conference about Columbia’s 1968 occupation (Fifty Years After “The Revolution”: New Perspectives on 1968”) where we sang Solidarity Forever just before Provost Coatsworth gave his opening remarks. Far from betraying any sense of shame or regret, the Provost proceeded to joke about having “gone over to the dark side.” It is the hubris of this power- a corporate, patronizing, patriarchal power that wants to retain total control over the working and learning conditions of its workers and students- that the unionization of graduate workers at Columbia University challenges, and that is why the administration fights us.
But they will lose this fight. They will lose because over the past week well over a thousand graduate and undergraduate workers, and even more allies, have regularly signed in and signed out of picket shifts, and shouted themselves hoarse. They will lose because every day at the picket means less fear, and more confidence. They will lose because graduates will wake up at 5 am repeatedly to picket at delivery entrances. They will lose because during merely one week of striking, approximately 700 undergraduates have had to be hosted in off-campus classes every day. They will lose because the myth that we are not workers will be laid bare when the university comes to a standstill because of our withheld labor.
Today was the last day of our strike. We started picketing at the gates on 116th and Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue at 11 am. By now the sound of chants and drums intermingling with the honks of passing trucks driven by unionized drivers had become a familiar melody. At noon picketers and picket captains seamlessly folded back onto Low Plaza and led a march around Low Library- seasoned picketers already in seven days. The ranks at our noon rally were swelled by the bodies and chants of dozens of workers from various unions across the city who joined us in solidarity- Laborers Local 79, Transport Workers Union, Communication Workers of America, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, UAW Local 2110, and graduate workers’ unions from NYU, Yale and New School. This wasn’t the first time that many of these unions joined our picket in support, and it remains as humbling today as it was seven days ago when Laborers Local 79 surprised us by joining our rally with loud cheers.
Kate Jackson, a Bargaining Committee member, opened the rally by reminding us that “respect never came without a street fight”, and that labor law has always been political, following on the heels of labor activism. Julie Kushner, the Regional Director of the United Automobile Workers reminded us that we would win this battle with our administration just as NYU had won theirs before us. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who has been a consistent supporter of the rights of graduate workers and international students at Columbia, urged Columbia yet again to abide by the law. Dennis Trainor of the Communication Workers of America pledged that they would stand behind us throughout this fight to the end. And Vinny Alvarez, President of the Central Labor Council said that when we sit at the bargaining table, we must know that they all sit with us. For as Kate said earlier- “Solidarity is forever. The worker is with you.”
Maida Rosenstein’s speech, standing alongside two recently laid off long-time support staff members of our Local 2110, emphasized this administration’s long, lowly history of union-busting. Zishun Ning of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association spoke of his experiences organizing workers in Chinatown, and emphasized the importance of unions for international students and workers. Leren Zhu, a Masters student and Student Assistant at Columbia University spoke to the fears of many international students, insisting that the union makes all of us stronger because questions of payment on time, work security and a grievance procedure for sexual harassment cases affect us all. A colleague from NYU GSOC shared some of their organizing experiences and successes, driving home the fact that we weren’t the only ones fighting against the administration’s narrative of privilege that sought to isolate graduate workers from one another. Professor Jean Howard spoke on behalf of a contingent of faculty who had joined our rally in support, to remind us that there were many professors who had no trouble seeing us as both students and co-workers. To round up the rally our extraordinary undergraduates, led by Student-Worker Solidarity, presented a statement addressed to the administration, demanding that they start bargaining with our union. This statement was endorsed by seventy undergraduate groups, and a beautiful banner inscribed with those seventy signatures was delivered by SWS to the gates of Low. They had promised to deliver it personally to President Bollinger as a birthday gift, but alas, the administration was too scared to let them into the inner sanctum of power and locked the doors.
The usual post-rally lunch today was accompanied by the rousing strings of our Picket Band. Fortified with pizza and the beautiful refrain of “the union makes us strong” in our ears, we returned once more to the picket, this time on College Walk. Excitement at the picket line shot high with the arrival of gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who chose to picket with us. She reiterated that the way to fight systemic inequality in New York was by having workers like us join unions. Undeterred by the bevy of reporters following her, the picket marched on in single file. Shortly before 3 pm we all gathered around the inspiring figure of Rosalie Ray, another Bargaining Committee member who reiterated all that we had achieved and learnt over the past week, but also paused to think about what we had built- our community. Our first picketing experience ended with chants of “If you don’t bargain we’ll be back”, and several picketers carried on to a public discussion about next steps for our campaign.
At the 1968 event on Friday, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now said that his few days being part of the occupation in Columbia in April 1968 had imparted to him the lessons of a lifetime. It was within the confines of those occupied buildings, he said, that students encountered for the first time the possibility that they may build a new world. This past week, the picket line has been for us something like that space, at once liberating and educational. We have dared to dream and articulate what a new, more equitable university might look like. We have looked around us and put faces and stories to what we call our union. We have built an ethic of picketing, picking up a chant where one tired voice leaves off, or a drum when a weary hand takes a break. We have baked for our picketers if we couldn’t join the picket ourselves, or brought our strollers and children and dogs along with us when we could. We have seen what solidarity means. And more voices have spoken up than ever before. As more and more heads and shoulders join together in labor and debate, we build our union from the bottom up. The Graduate Workers of Columbia will not stop until we have our contract, and we dream of so much more.