Why take a strike vote?

It’s clear that once again we may need to take further action to get Columbia to do the right thing. Over the years we have had to continuously call on the university’s administration to do the right thing and to respect our democracy. Two years ago, Columbia had refused to bargain with us despite strong and repeated majority support since 2014. This all accumulated to our first strike vote in April 2018, where we authorized a strike with a 93% yes vote (1832 to 136). Following this vote we struck for one week April 24-30th and when we threatened to strike again in November 2018, the university agreed to recognize our union and start bargaining. 

Now, after more than a year of negotiations and continued majority support and action, CU refuses to agree to a fair contract. We continue to hope we can reach agreement without a strike, but it is clear we need to prepare for that possibility by taking a vote. We know that if we want to move the university closer to agreement we must show that we are willing to take further action.


What is a strike?

A strike is a coordinated stoppage of work aimed at convincing an employer to meet employee demands. In our case, TAs, RAs, and others would stop our paid work doing grading, teaching, and research on campus in order to send a message to the administration that they need to make more progress in bargaining. Our bargaining committee would only call a strike after a democratic vote authorizing them to do so.


What happens if we do strike?

We would stop our work and also engage in organized picketing—protesting at various locations around the campuses in order to make our action visible and effective. Additionally, we could ask that other unionized workers, who are able to, to refuse to work with the school; for example, during our strike in April 2018, many delivery drivers refused to cross our picket lines to bring packages to campus.


I support unionization, but I can’t afford to stop working. What can I do?

The decision to participate in a strike is a big one. During our strike in April 2018, over 1500 of our colleages from across the university participated. In the event of a strike that lasts more than seven days, and if Columbia exercises its right to stop paying those who strike, all striking workers would be eligible to receive strike pay from the United Auto Workers (the national union we are affiliated with) of up to $275 per week for the duration of the strike. We could also raise money independently for those who would face extreme hardship in a strike (e.g., those with dependents). In order to qualify for the strike benefits, workers are asked to perform strike duty, such as picketing.


How long could a strike last?

We would hope that the administration would agree to our demands in order to avert a strike. However, if we do have to strike, the goal would be to demonstrate how indispensable student workers are. If the administration were to remain intransigent, a strike could go on for some time, but we would strategically assess the timing and the length of the strike.


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 want to help. What can I do?

You can stay informed by joining our mailing list here. Additionally, email us at columbiagradunion@gmail.com to reach out to a GWC organizer to talk more about how you can get involved.


Do we go to the classes we are students in while on strike?

You would not have legal or academic protection if you refuse to go to your own classes. Student workers should continue their academic progress while striking, refusing to attend your classes as students is not legally protected.


Are departments allowed to refuse to hire me in the future if I strike?

The law protects our right to strike and prohibits retaliation for participating in such protected activity. Thousands of RAs and TAs have gone on strike across the US and have avoided this problem, including over 1,500 grad workers here at Columbia in April 2018. Again, mass participation is our best protection against Columbia even contemplating this kind of extreme action.


What if I’m an international student?

International students have the same rights as US citizens to participate in union activity. It is illegal for Columbia to retaliate for protected activity. Thousands of international student workers across the United States have struck and been otherwise active in their unions for more than 40 years, including here at Columbia. Administration’s anti-strike campaigns often target international students because their visa status makes them more vulnerable, but you are protected.


What will happen to my students?

Ultimately, our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions: the contract provisions we win through striking will make Columbia a better place to teach and to learn. We would strive to educate students in advance of the strike so that they understand that it is growing out of six years of organizing and nearly a year of bargaining, where the University is yet to make meaningful proposals on both economic and non-economic issues. We would encourage them to contact the administration and resolve the strike before it even happens so their education is not disrupted. The impact of an actual strike depends on many factors: length of strike, time of the year, your duties, etc.


What is a partial strike?

A partial strike consists of you doing part of your TA/RAship work and striking on the other half and would be unprotected by labor law. 


What if I’m a RA?

Work/research that is absolutely necessary for your dissertation progress is academic work that you may continue. We want to be sure that any action allows the maximum number of people to participate with maximum impact on Columbia. The overall goal here is to strike on our paid work to pressure Columbia in bargaining, not delay our dissertation work. Conversely some grad workers will have to complete the bare minimum necessary to maintain their own research (e.g., tending to animals or live cultures) while refraining from other lab work.


Will there be a strike training?

Yes—we will schedule trainings so that we can learn from experienced strikers about how a strike can be most effective and maintain high participation levels.


If there is a strike, and I am unable to strike, will there be a penalty?

Strikes are more effective when there is large participation, but it is an individual’s choice to participate. It is important that we stand together if we need to strike, and show solidarity with each other. Our union will not penalize members who do not participate in a strike.


What do I say to my advisor or professor?

You are not obligated to tell anyone about the strike, but you can and should talk to them. Ideally, we want them to tell the administration to bargain a fair contract so that the strike can be avoided. 


I heard from my dean that my job isn’t in the union?

The decision by the National Labor Relations Board that granted our collective bargaining rights, defined members of our union as all undergraduate and graduate student employees performing instructional services and graduate employees performing research service.

As stated in the NLRB decision, these titles could include, but are not limited to: “All student employees who provide instructional services, including graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants (Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers and Graders): All Graduate Research Assistants (including those compensated through Training Grants) and All Departmental Research Assistants employed by the Employer at all of its facilities, including Morningside Heights, Health Sciences, Lamont-Doherty and Nevis facilities.”

About Program Assistants. At the time of the hearing at the NLRB, in 2015, the evidence was that Program Assistants performed administrative duties and did not perform instructional services or work similar to the work performed by research assistants. If today Program Assistants are providing instructional services or work similar to research assistants, then the Union considers you to be included in the bargaining unit. Whether you are in the bargaining unit or not, you have the same rights as unit employees to strike in support of our demand that the University offers us the contract we deserve.


How does the strike vote work?

Voting will take place by secret ballot. If ⅔ of the votes are in favor, it would authorize the bargaining committee to call a strike.

Eligible voters would be Columbia graduate and undergraduate students who have signed a GWC-UAW authorization card and are currently employed by the university, previously employed by the university, or expect to be employed by the university in one of the categories outlined by the NLRB decision (i.e. graduate and undergraduate Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Preceptors, Course Assistants, Readers, Graders, Graduate Research Assistants [including those on Training Grants], and All Departmental Research Assistants). If you meet the above criteria and have not signed up for the Union previously, you would be able to do so at the polls in order to vote.


If we vote yes, will we strike immediately?

It is not our plan to strike immediately upon conclusion of the strike vote. A strike authorization vote authorizes the Union Bargaining Committee to call a strike if they deem it necessary, but it does not mean we will strike right away. Typically, we would give some time for the university to agree to our demand (in this case, agree to a fair contract) before actually striking so the administration would have an opportunity to avert a strike and the disruption it would cause to campus activities and services.