Around 3,000 graduate workers at Columbia University in New York City, who have been on strike since 3 November, recently received an email from the university human resources department threatening the workers with replacement if they continue striking.
The strike is currently the largest active strike in the US.
The email, sent on 2 December by Columbia University human resources vice-president Dave Driscoll, informed workers their positions would be replaced if they continue striking past 10 December.
“Our interpretation of this email is that it’s basically a threat. They are saying here’s the date, December 10. If you’re still exercising your right to engage in protected activity on or after December 10 there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get your job back. So we think that’s the intention of the threat, but we also think that what they’re doing is unlawful,” said Ethan Jacobs, a graduate student worker in the philosophy department at Columbia University and a member of the GWC-UAW Local 2110 bargaining committee.
Jacobs described the unfair labor practice charges filed by the union against the university with the National Labor Relations Board. They include the university enacting a wage freeze and changing wage disbursement schedules earlier this year without negotiating with the union after its members rejected a tentative agreement after a strike in the 2021 spring semester.
According to the National Labor Relations Act, workers who strike to protest unfair labor practices cannot be discharged or permanently replaced. Jacobs expressed the union’s intent to file additional charges with the NLRB over the university’s threat to replace workers on strike.
Graduate workers have been on strike over improved compensation to cover the high cost of living in New York City, a third-party arbitration process for harassment and discrimination complaints and improved health care plans for student workers, including dental care and vision coverage.
“Columbia University operates like these early 20th century company towns. For example, I live in an apartment that is owned by Columbia, so the university is also my landlord. They are the source of my health insurance, the source of my job, the source of my academic progress. In nearly every aspect of my life, Columbia has some sort of say in how that goes and that’s really problematic,” added Jacobs.
Over the past several years, graduate student workers at Columbia University have fought for a first union contract with the university, after securing a ruling by the NLRB in 2016 that affirmed graduate students are employees with the right to unionize.
Workers are pushing for a wage floor of $45,000 annually for first year doctoral students on one-year appointments and a minimum hourly wage of $26 for hourly workers. Current wages vary by department from as low as $29,000 annually for student workers at the School of Social Work to $41,500 for engineering student workers. Current hourly minimum wage at the school is $15 an hour.
“The pay structure we have currently is the subject of our second unfair labor practice charge. We used to get paid in a lump sum at the beginning of the semester. Our pay was never enough to begin with, but people could budget around it,” said Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a graduate student worker in the Department of Sociology, who noted student workers have been forced to sign an attestation form that they were not striking in order to receive pay during the strike.
Columbia University received returns on their endowment of 32.3% in fiscal year 2021, increasing the school’s endowment value to $14.35bn and ending the fiscal year with a $150m operating surplus, recovering from initial financial losses incurred by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tamara Hache, a graduate student worker in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures Department and an international student, expressed concerns over the threat of replacement and its impact on the university as a whole, including international students who cannot work outside the university.
“This measure the university is trying to carry out, of this threat, would be incredibly destructive for everyone at the university. It wouldn’t just affect us as graduate student workers, but everyone. The quality of our students’ education and our departments would be terribly impacted,” said Hache.
In response to the threat of replacement, the union is rallying support from undergraduate students, parents, alumni, faculty and the public, and have held protests over the threat of replacing workers on strike.
Columbia University said in a statement in regards to the threats of replacing workers on strike, “In the face of enormously trying circumstances created by the strike, our first priority is the academic progress of our students, particularly undergraduates whose classes are being disrupted. The message sent last week to the union bargaining committee explaining the university’s approach to spring appointments and teaching assignments was necessary to fulfill that commitment. Replacing instructors who leave the classroom is permitted by US labor law. With respect to striking student workers who return to work after December 10, we will make every effort to provide them with suitable positions, as available.”