By ANDREA CROW
In early 2014, I got a phone call late at night from a fellow Columbia Ph.D. student telling me that a group of graduate workers was getting together to talk about the possibility of unionizing. “Show up, but keep it quiet. Only bring people you trust.” There were maybe forty people in the room at that first meeting, from across about a dozen departments. Two graduate students from the history department — Lindsey Dayton, a former hotel organizer currently studying labor history, and Ana Keilson, a dance historian — talked us through the practical steps that we could take if we wanted to start fixing what was wrong at Columbia. As we would continue to do at dozens of meetings in the future, we filled a chalkboard with our grievances: unaffordable rent increases in university housing that outpaced pay raises, exorbitant dependent health insurance fees and minimal childcare support, nontransparent policies regarding everything from T.A. workload to termination procedures to vacation. Students shared stories of having to take out loans to pay rent because the administration was behind on paying stipends; of facing harassment and discrimination with no one to turn to; of working in unsafe conditions with inadequate training.
What made me take on this campaign was in part that it offered a practical, achievable route to resolve these problems. But it was also that, in that room, I heard for the first time the beginnings of a genuine plan to save academia. I had read books speculating on how to defend higher education against profit-driven administrations rapidly casualizing academic labor, siphoning off research funds, and ignoring faculty demands. I had heard reassurances that my Columbia degree would somehow ensure that I would be one of the lucky few who got a tenure-track job, despite the fact there was little evidence to support that. I had listened to all kinds of advice about how to put myself in the best possible position to be hired, while at the same time feeling a nagging concern that, even if I were hired, it would likely be in a department in which I had little power to stop the shutting down of tenure lines or the trend towards treating the university like a hedge fund instead of an institution mandated to promote research and teaching. But unionization meant real power. In fact, it was and remains the only concrete route to real workplace power that I have heard of.
In classic graduate student fashion, when I started to get involved, my biggest concern was what I needed to know. Early on, I asked a more experienced organizer what books I should read to be an effective organizer. “I don’t think you need to read anything to do this,” he explained, trying to be polite but also trying to show how I might have the wrong sense of what made me or anyone else qualified to do the work of building a union. As the campaign continued, I started to understand that better. As graduate students, we’re taught to authorize ourselves as individuals by mastering and contributing in a unique way to an accumulated body of knowledge. As a union organizer, the work instead is creating a dynamic body of connected individuals sharing their knowledge, trusting each other, and collaborating towards a common goal. Your authority comes from the time you spend putting in the unglamorous but essential work of creating and maintaining those connections. These connections are your union, whether you’re recognized or not.
In order for our union, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW), to gain ground, our first task was to make sure that we had at least one active supporter in every department. When it came time to start our card drive, we activated those supporters to spread majority support within each of those departments. No administration will see a union as a real force to be reckoned with if it’s made up of a few committed humanities students with a well-drafted set of principles. Moreover, no union has much of a right to call itself representative of the needs of graduate workers broadly unless it makes and maintains contact with all of the diverse members that make up its rank-and-file. Our card drive was successful because hundreds of people from over fifty departments were actively involved in making it happen.
In our case, before we could vote, we had to first overturn a legal precedent, the 2004 Brown decision, a ruling made under a Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) defining graduate workers as students only: not workers, and therefore unable to unionize. We were clearly in the right — graduate students obviously work, and generate economic value for their employers — but our case moved through governmental structures at a frustratingly slow pace, which was further slowed down at every opportunity by our university’s administration in what seemed a transparent effort to erode the energy of our organizers or hope that the movement would die out when its leaders graduated. However, because we had built active connections, and because those connections are where the real power of a union lies, we were able to start acting like a union anyway.
During the long lag time – nearly two years – while we worked through the NLRB appeals process and awaited a decision, we used those connections to determine graduate worker needs and respond to them. When it looked like the length of Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows students on F1 visas to stay in the country and work after graduation, might be reduced, our administration refused to even send an email to international students telling them what was happening. We brought in an immigration lawyer to explain and advise graduate workers about the issue and, during the comment period when the Department of Homeland Security was ruling on this case, submitted a letter of support for an increase to OPT and got the president of our international union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) to submit a letter of support as well. Happily, as we had hoped, OPT eligibility was extended beyond what it had formerly been. As our unionization campaign gained publicity, our university (and other universities where union campaigns had begun) suddenly began raising graduate worker pay. Later, in the eleventh hour leading up to our NLRB election, the university unveiled a hotline to address the widespread problem of late payment (even while continuing to insist that virtually all students were paid on time). These gains were gratifying, but we still needed to win a vote to ensure that improvements would continue for the long-term.
From the time that the NLRB issued the Columbia decision reinstating our collective bargaining rights in August 2016 and especially during the two days of voting that December, the connections that we had built with each other were what saved our campaign. The administration fought dirty, sending administrators around to hold meetings with professors in (to my knowledge) every department, presenting them with what we might now in Trump’s America call “alternative facts” about how unionization “could” affect them and their students, abusing advisor-advisee trust as well as the conditions of funding scarcity that the administration itself had created, to try to scare people away from voting yes. Perhaps most cynically, the administration exploited the atmosphere of anxiety created by the 2016 U.S. presidential election by targeting international students and falsely claiming that unionizing would endanger their visa status, despite the fact that not only is this untrue, but, as many already-unionized international students pointed out, unions can be a tremendous resource for protecting international student rights. However, because of the long-term trust we had built among our rank-and-file and especially the hours our organizers spent, every single day, knocking on lab and office doors and asking people what new questions or concerns they might have, and how the union could make their specific working conditions better, we were able to respond to those concerns as they came up. Through the same conversations, we developed new leaders who realized that, through this movement, they could make the changes that they wanted to see for themselves and their colleagues a reality.
In writing this piece, I actually feel a little bit out of step with my beliefs about how union campaigns are fought and won because, as the recent U.S. presidential election has shown, coherent arguments in print really don’t change minds. Face-to-face, individual conversations on the ground do. When it comes to unionization, these conversations aren’t complicated. You really don’t need to know much more than a few basic principles: that unions are democratic in character, that they are a means to real power, and that they enable you to turn ideals of justice and equity into material improvements in people’s daily lives.
Any theory you might need to guide you in how to successfully build a union for academic workers boils down to three main points:
1) You have time for it. In fact, you can’t afford not to take time for it. The reason many graduate students feel so exhausted is because we’re facing a job market where no amount of effort or talent is sufficient to ensure that we’ll get jobs. Instead of individually scrambling, by unionizing we can change the structure to make a better workplace for everyone. If you want to make your union work, commit to setting aside at least an hour every single week to go around and talk to other workers, in collaboration and communication with other organizers doing the same elsewhere. There’s no real mystery to it; it just takes time. Create practical goals, take concrete steps to meet those goals, and don’t lose your commitment. It’s probably good practice for dissertation writing.
2) You will be uncomfortable. In order to build a union, you have to talk to a lot of people. Most of the time, those people will be polite and interested. Sometimes they will be enthusiastic and want to help. But very often you’ll encounter people getting angry, talking down to you, expressing politics that may offend you, or, what is probably most frustrating, telling you that they think it’s great you have the time to work on this but that they simply don’t. In all of these cases, your job is to absorb whatever they’re saying with a smile, figure what it is that will make them motivated to see how unionization will benefit them, and then lead them there. You’re not demonstrating your knowledge; you’re listening to figure out what they care about, remembering it, and treating them with the attention and respect that they deserve regardless of whether you get it in return. This invisible emotional labor is probably the most difficult part of building a campaign, but it is what will make or break your efforts. It’s also probably good practice for teaching.
3) You will be glad you did. Much of academic work is isolating. Organizing a union builds a community. Before I started working on the GWC campaign, I knew people in only a handful of departments outside of my own. By the time we launched our card drive, there were people that I knew and trusted across the entire campus. I got to learn about people’s projects in fields from plasma physics to pathology to architecture and constantly exchange ideas with this diverse body of scholars; it felt like what I had hoped a university would be. On top of that, unionizing built relationships between the graduate community and other bodies on campus: clerical workers, adjunct faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduates. Through these networks of mutual support, we were able to stand up for each others’ needs and better define and understand who makes a university operate, what their work entails, and how to create conditions where that body of people can thrive. Much of academic work is ephemeral; when you undertake a union campaign, you get to speak truth to power and actually force its hand. You get to know that you helped someone afford the childcare fees that allowed them to finish their dissertation. You get to tell someone facing wrongful termination that you and thousands of other graduate students have their back and will stand up for them. You get to secure raises for all of your colleagues. And you get to be part of an international movement that is putting the power to decide how universities should operate in the hands of the people who make them work.
This past December, we won our unionization vote in a landslide victory of 1602-623. However, our university administration continues to refuse to recognize us, coming up with trumped-up (as it were) charges of voter fraud and similar allegations lacking any supporting evidence, in yet another attempt to demoralize organizers and delay our path to a contract. If you have a moment, please consider signing this petition urging Columbia to drop the objections and respect our democratic choice. In the meantime, we know that we are a union and we’re going to keep acting like one. We’re bringing in new organizers continuously and moving together towards the process of electing a bargaining committee and solidifying what platforms we’re going to work for. As we’ve already seen, under the Trump administration we all face ongoing threats to health care, to the minimum wage, to the environment, and to the rights of minorities, non-U.S. nationals, LGBTQ individuals, women, people with disabilities, and more. Winning a union is one way of legally securing basic rights as well as building a network through which people in your workplace can communicate their needs and stand up for each other in this insecure climate. And it’s the main way that I can see that we have a chance of saving higher education at all.
Andrea Crow is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her dissertation is about demographically-specific discussions of food and diet in Early Modern English Literature. She has trained in oral history for a project with Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality and is pursuing a graduate certificate in feminist scholarship. with the institute and received oral history training in order to act as an interviewer for an oral history project on the formation of the institute. She is also a member of the University Senate, representing graduate students in the humanities.