FAQ on Strike and Related Activity

On April 23, the Bargaining Committee voted 5-3 against calling a strike. We understand there are workers who have chosen to engage in strike activity at Columbia. While GWC-UAW did not call for this strike, we urge the university to respect workers’ right to engage in protected activity as we strongly support the right of workers to engage in protected activity.

As a union, we have been advocating, both at the bargaining table and in other ways, for many of the concerns being raised by striking workers. We will continue to fight for a fair first union contract with Columbia, as well as for adequate response to issues arising because of the COVID-19 crisis. To continue pressuring Columbia to respond to issues arising from the current public health crisis, GWC is organizing a series of days of action. Although striking may not seem feasible or effective to many workers right now, workers can demonstrate their support through those events. As student workers prepare to take those actions, some will also be striking. The following reiterates and clarifies questions asked by members about their rights. 

What happened to the Strike Authorization Vote? 

GWC members voted in March to authorize the Bargaining Committee to call a strike if necessary for a strong contract. The Strike Authorization Vote passed by 96% before the COVID-19 outbreak measures changed our circumstances. 

What protections are there for workers who strike?

First and foremost, as we have always maintained, the best “protection” in a strike is large, visible majority participation. In 2018, for example, when masses of graduate workers participated in the week-long GWC-UAW strike for recognition, we heard no reports of retaliation. The Bargaining Committee called a strike at that time because there was clearly widespread interest in and support for striking.

Second, with certain exceptions (e.g., partial strikes), US labor law also provides the legal right to engage in strikes as protected concerted activity. While the law is obviously important, the most successful strikes and campaigns have not relied on the law, but on the power of mass, visible majority participation and broader community support.

I’ve heard a ‘partial strike’ is not protected. What does that mean?

There are precedents at the NLRB of not protecting striking workers who are only striking on some of their assigned tasks. Calculating grades but withholding them from the University would constitute a partial strike and, therefore, be unprotected activity. Grading students as “pass” during a strike would also constitute a partial strike, since the worker would be doing part of their job by giving grades.

Could I be fired for joining a strike?

The law protects our right to strike. Since the 1970s, thousands and thousands of RAs and TAs across the US—including here at Columbia in 2004 and 2018—have engaged in lawful strike activity without being fired. Beyond these legal protections, mass participation is our best protection since it makes it difficult to single out anyone even if Columbia did contemplate such an extreme action.

I heard someone say it is a “wildcat” strike. Is that true?

Since the term wildcat strike does not have an absolute legal meaning, it is difficult to say yes or no and the answer does not really affect its protected status. The term has been used most commonly to refer to a strike that violates a no-strike clause in a collective bargaining agreement (such as the recent UC Santa Cruz strike) or a strike taking place where the law prohibits strikes (such as the West Virginia teachers strike). But the term is also sometimes used more generally to refer to a strike that is initiated when the leadership of the union does not call for a strike. Striking graduate workers are not currently violating a no strike clause, or in violation of a law that prohibits strikes, but it is true that the elected union leadership did not call the strike.

I heard someone say there was a Teamsters case saying this strike might be unprotected. Is that true?

A concern has been raised about a Trump NLRB decision, CC 1 Limited Partnership, 362 NLRB No. 125 (2019). While this case is an illustration of the lengths that the Trump NLRB is willing to go to deprive workers of their rights, the facts of that case are very different from the current facts at Columbia as we know them. In CC 1, the NLRB found that employees who struck after their Teamsters leadership told employees that the strike was “against” the Union and “illegal.” The general legal principle at issue in the case was this:

In assessing whether employees who engage in an unauthorized strike lose the protection of the Act, two factors are controlling: (1) whether the employees are attempting to bargain directly with the employer and (2) whether the employees’ position is inconsistent with the union’s position.

These factors depend on the motives and goals of the people calling for the strike. If they are seeking to displace the Union or undermine the Union’s position in bargaining, then there would be a danger that the Trump NLRB would find a strike to be unprotected. The Bargaining Committee has never said that the strike is intended to undermine the Union, and there is no sign that the strikers intend to do so either. Questions about the CC 1 Partnership case do remind us about the dangers of relying upon the Trump NLRB, which is why we would reiterate that any strike is most effective and protected if it involves large, visible majority participation. We have also pointed to the importance of avoiding tactics such as a partial strike or sabotage that could be used to deprive workers of legal protections. 

How long will the strike last? 

As GWC-UAW has not been involved in organizing or developing this strike strategy, we are unable to answer that question.

Is a rent strike a legally-protected activity?

The Union does not represent individuals as tenants and therefore does not provide legal advice on tenants’ rights. However, we are setting up a workshop with lawyers familiar with tenants’ rights and law on Wednesday, April 29, 2-3:30 PM via Zoom. Click here for more information.

We have a right to collective action and we expect Columbia to respect that right. In the meantime, the Bargaining Committee will continue to fight for a strong contract and equitable solutions to hardships from the COVID-19 measures. Some workers will be striking and some will be fighting in other ways.

Updated May 1, 2020

Can Columbia dock my pay if I strike?

Workers have the right to engage in protected activity, including strikes. Employers normally do not pay workers when they are on strike.

If I am on strike, and Columbia asks me whether or not I am striking, do I have an obligation to answer?

If an individual is on strike, not responding would be consistent with being on strike because answering questions from your employer is a normal part of work duties. If an individual does not respond, the employer may logically conclude that the individual is on strike.  

If I am not on strike, and Columbia asks me whether or not I am striking, do I have an obligation to answer?

We understand that Columbia has been questioning people who are doing their jobs about whether they support the strike. If you have been doing your job, there is generally no basis for Columbia to question you about the strike. If you have actually been absent from work, but are not on strike, it may eventually be insubordination for you to refuse to answer questions about the reasons for your absence. However, we do not believe that they have the right to ask employees about their support for the strike without any justification. If you have received an inquiry about whether you are on strike from the administration, you could legitimately respond, “Why are you sending me this inquiry? Is it because I am a strong supporter of the rights of student workers?”