NEW YORK — As undergraduates studied and sunbathed on the lawn, striking teaching assistants at Columbia University picketed outside the university’s main gate Monday to the sound of drums, tambourines and protest chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, union-busting’s got to go.”
Under the auspices of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, the Graduate Student Employees United began the first day of a week-long strike to demand recognition as a union. The GSEU strike is timed to coincide with a strike by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale in the first coordinated job action in Ivy League history.
At the start of the day about 70 strikers, who assembled on about 150 feet of sidewalk on Broadway, off of Columbia property, wore printed placards and carried handmade signs proclaiming, “I am a worker” and “Job Security = Academic Freedom.” A large inflated rat sat immediately in front of Columbia’s main gate as volunteers distributed flyers to students and passers-by who generally expressed attitudes of mild support for the strikers.
Columbia’s administration, like Yale’s, has historically refused to recognize a teaching assistant union because it does not view graduate students as employees, spokeswoman Alissa Kaplan Michaels said.
“The university’s relationship with its graduate students is educational and collaborative, not an employer-employee relationship,” she said. “Teaching is an integral component of their education.”
But Felicity Palmer, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the English Department, said at Columbia the line between graduate students and full-time instructors is not clear. Palmer said she is the sole instructor for one section of a seminar course this semester, which requires her to do all of the teaching, grading and administrative work for a class of twenty students.
“The other person teaching the course is a professor,” she said. “We’re basically doing the same work.”
Contract negotiations between a graduate student union and Columbia would create a “regularized job description” for teaching assistants and graduate students, fourth-year history student Laura Hornbake said. Hornbake, a picket captain for yesterday’s strike, said research assistants who work up to 70 hours per week and teaching assistants who work 25 hours per week earn roughly the same stipend.
“There’s no set of expectations,” she said.
A union could also negotiate better health benefits for graduate students, Palmer said. Hornbake said $15,000 of her $18,000 stipend is used to cover health costs not funded by Columbia’s health plan.
The picket line was not visible from most of Columbia’s main quadrangle, which was covered with sunbathers, people tossing Frisbees, and clusters of students reading or chatting. Most students were aware of the strike and several had classes moved off-campus because of it. But they contrasted this year’s week-long strike with an indefinite work stoppage last spring that caused the cancellation of many finals.
“It’s nothing compared to last year,” sophomore Sherie Kogon said. “From 9 to 5, they’d be out here screaming.”
Kogon said none of her current teaching assistants are participating in the strike.
Some students have chosen to ally themselves with the striking graduate students, who — unlike their Yale equivalents — asked undergraduates not to attend classes held on campus during the week. Ashby Hardesty, a freshman, said he is attending one class to turn in a paper but will not go to his other three classes this week.
“I’m not going to any other ones because I support the strike,” he said.
Liesl Olson, a preceptor for Literature Humanities, one of Columbia’s core courses, said she has moved all of her classes off-campus for the week of the strike. Olson, who received her Ph.D. from Columbia last year, said she wants to “honor and support” her former classmates and colleagues.
Because Monday was part of “Days on Campus” — Columbia’s program for accepted students similar to Yale’s Bulldog Days– the strike was part of the first Columbia experience for many pre-frosh, who generally seemed unfazed by the event.
“I think it’s nice to see that people are expressing themselves,” said Amanda Rothman, a high school senior from Boston, Mass.
The number of strikers near campus dwindled in the afternoon as many graduate students attended a press conference and a hearing on labor issues in higher education at City Hall. At 2 p.m., during the hearings, there were only about 20 people demonstrating at Columbia.
Etay Ziv, a fifth-year student in biomedical engineering who spoke at the press conference, said he and his pregnant wife spend 80 percent of their income on health care and off-campus housing because Columbia was unable to provide them with couples housing.
“We’ll be making decisions between health care, housing, and food for me, my wife, and my baby,” he said.
Kaplan-Michaels reaffirmed Columbia’s position against graduate student unionization and said the university tries to use other avenues of communication to meet graduate students’ needs.
GESO representatives will travel to New York Wednesday to participate in the joint rally with GSEU members.
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