People walk on the Columbia University campus on March 9, 2020, in New York City. The university canceled classes for two days after a faculty member was quarantined for exposure to the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

Six weeks after it began, the student workers’ unfair labor practices strike at Columbia University has become the largest ongoing labor strike in the nation. The union has been on strike since Nov. 3, with workers calling for higher wages and more protections for graduate and undergraduate student workers. As decided by the National Labor Relations Board, the union comprises undergraduate and graduate students performing instructional services such as teaching assistants, and all graduate research assistants. According to the union, many of their members are international students, caregivers, first-generation college students, or low-income students who are working as teaching assistants to help finance their education. Without a living wage, they can’t afford their education, let alone living in New York City.

“So many of us came to New York relying on Columbia to take care of us,” says Ayesha Verma, an English and comparative literature Ph.D. student from India and union member. “It’s just sad that Columbia doesn’t seem to be wanting to support us.”  

This is the second time the Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union with more than 3,000 members, has gone on strike this year. The union had reached a tentative agreement with the university in the spring, offering a wage floor of $42,350 for a year-long contract in select departments—and even less to others—which left members disappointed and frustrated because the offer fell short on unit recognition, compensation, health care, and access to third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment cases. But despite peaceful demonstrations and widespread support from other students at the school and across the city—even drawing support from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the university has responded to the strike with retaliatory tactics and false accusations of violence to scare union members into retreat, refusing to meet their demands. The school’s actions have critics accusing the seemingly liberal institution of engaging in anti-union practices.

After hundreds of union members and supporters rallied on campus on Dec. 8, Columbia University Provost Mary Boyce struck back with a campus-wide email falsely alleging that picketers were inflicting violence and harassing non-picketers. SWC-UAW affirmed in a signed document that their protest against the university’s unfair labor practices saw no violence from picketers against people or property. Prior to the Dec. 8 rally, vice president of human resources Daniel Driscoll sent an email to student workers threatening to permanently replace them if they were still on strike by Dec. 10. As of Dec. 14, Columbia University has started to advertise open positions to New York City-area adjuncts, teaching assistants, and graders to grade fall assignments and instruct spring courses. The Union for Graduate Employees at New York University has created a petition for New York City educators and researchers to sign in support of student workers, refusing to accept the open positions.

“Contract negotiations have become hostage to the egos of a few individuals, which is highly unfortunate,” says Ali Raj, an international communications Ph.D. student and union member since 2019. “Perhaps Columbia was under the impression that strike action was the choice of a small minority of students and that their numbers would continue to dwindle with time. They have been proven wrong on all counts. Our resolve, our numbers, and our strength have only strengthened with time. Like all institutions, Columbia too needs reform.”

The union is asking for $45,000 wages for Ph.D. students on one-year contracts, with 3% increases yearly in the second and third years, in addition to dental and vision coverage, and third-party arbitration for discrimination and harassment cases. Columbia has countered with $43,621, 75% of premiums for dental coverage, and no vision coverage, and harassment and discrimination cases would go through Columbia’s own investigators, even after appeal. Other institutions like New York University and Harvard University have struck similar deals with their student worker unions.

Graduate students’ salaries vary across the different schools, but the standard nine-month contract is $31,140, which workers say is not nearly enough to constitute a living wage in the most expensive city in the country. While Columbia invests $6.3 billion on the Manhattanville campus expansion, displacing an estimated 5,000 people, and had a $5.2 billion revenue in 2021, union members say they still refuse to pay a living wage to the students who work to make the university run efficiently, conduct the research that brings prestige to their name, and in many cases are educators themselves.

“We are really asking for the bare minimum required to live a dignified life in the city, without constant worries about affording the most basic necessities, and a safe work environment at the university for students workers of all backgrounds and orientations,” says Raj. “Several universities with comparable circumstances have agreed to similar rightful demands of their student workers in recent times.”

Raj, who traveled from Pakistan to study at Columbia, is an international student who relies wholly on wage and stipend payments from the university to make ends meet. Since the strike started last month, he has not been paid and has had to rely on his “nearly exhausted savings” and payments from the union. Organizers have raised over $300,000 in a hardship fund for striking workers, and disbursed over $225,000 of that fund so far.

“I’ve had to minimize the most necessary expenses, including that of food, as much as I can and borrow money from friends to pay rent,” says Raj.

The prolonged strike has drastically impacted the lives of union members, but it is also inevitably going to affect the students whose classes have been canceled as a result. Many undergraduates will lose course credits where the graduate workers are the instructors of record, running the whole classes. Administrators tried to avert this situation during the last strike in the spring, but have not been able to this time around.

“We didn’t want to harm undergraduates. I would have expected the university to cut things off because now there is this whole accreditation concern,” says union member Jonathen Ben-Menachem. “I don’t understand how bearing that cost is acceptable compared to the cost of our proposal or something close to our proposal.”

Verma recently joined the union at the end of November. She had always supported the union from afar but was unable to join due to financial concerns. Finally, the administration’s constant “humiliating and accusatory” emails pushed her to join.

“It was especially difficult because I chose Columbia over other universities. I have expectations from them,” says Verma. 

Verma says her rent takes up half of her monthly payment, and in the summer she is left with no money for food after paying the rent. 

“As international students, and most of us are not from affluent backgrounds and don’t have a safe space called home, we can’t even travel back to our countries because we can’t afford it,” says Verma. “We are stuck in an expensive city without money to buy basic groceries. It’s traumatizing. I have personally been on a one-meal diet because I couldn’t afford more food.”

Workers say they hope the university will meet their demands as soon as possible and put an end to the hypocritical power play. The union will protest the board of trustees at Battery Park on Wednesday, Dec. 15, and at Good Morning America on Thursday, Dec. 16, followed by another picket on Morningside Campus this Friday.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...