Strike of Columbia University’s Union For Research and Teaching Assistants

Mar 17, 2021 by

The “Ides of March” ( March 15) is notable for two momentous events.  The first one, the assassination of Julius Caesar, was for him at least an unlucky date in history.  The second one is history in the making, and fortune will shine on it.

This unfolding event is the strike by graduate workers of Columbia University.  The Roman emperor didn’t see it coming, but the University that assumes the crown of progressive enlightenment had years of advanced notice. 

The Union For Research and Teaching Assistants played fair and square with them, following all rules and protocols to the letter, precedent and spirit of law, but to little avail.  Columbia University refused to recognize them.
Not seeing “eye to eye” is one thing.  Insisting on going “toe to toe” quite another.

The graduate workers may incur hardship, but they will achieve justice. Columbia University will eventually concede what is righteously due these strikers.

Certainly they weren’t spoiling for a fight. They couldn’t have been more patient and civil.  In November, 2018, a Bargaining Framework Agreement was reached. Instead of honoring it, the University dug in its heels by not acting in full recognition of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-certified bargaining unit.

Why has this nighty institution thumbed its nose and behaved in a way that is a throwback to an era and place of an almost “right to work” philosophy for its vital, loyal and productive employees?  A labor contract would prove advantageous to everyone.

Is Columbia University “Ivy League” or bush league?

These brilliant graduate school employees provide essential instructional services and their demands for reasonable benefits, protections and recourse are morally right and fair. These Teaching assistants, Teaching Fellows, Research Assistants and others, by a margin of 96% approved an authorization to strike, if absolutely necessary as a last resort.
That was last spring.

The Union has shown forbearance.  The University has shown obstruction.

Just days ago there was a glimmer of hope which has since dimmed: the University shared cost estimates with the student workers, discussed Covid-caused delays in research projects, and improved health coverage for a portion of the employees.

Regarding compensation, non-discrimination, harassment and Union security, they wouldn’t budge. Neutral arbitration, living wages and acknowledgement of a “union shop” remain additional bones of contention.

The members’ backs are to the wall while they’re being kicked in the gut by administrative obstinacy,  yet they will surely prevail and thrive.

They are battling not only for input into working conditions and access to a grievance and arbitration machinery.  But what is also part of the picture and helpful for us all to understand is that these employees petition on behalf of us all even beyond their own exclusive self-interest.  They are campaigning for a boost in federally-funded scientific research, for instance.

Columbia University’s graduate student employees are the brain-trust of our nation. They are top achievers in areas from epidemiology to electrical engineering, computer science to classical studies, art to archaeology and all intellectual disciplines between and beyond. 

They deserve better and so do we.

It’s been around 5 years since the NLRB restored the right to collective bargaining for Research and Teaching Assistants at private universities.  At Columbia, these employees have made innumerable expressions of good-faith, but most of them have been rebuffed.
They take no joy in striking.  But the pain with which they reluctantly take this step does not mitigate against their determination to bring about past-due justice. They are “grassroots” employees re-seeding the lawn of a perennial labor movement.

All New Yorkers who not only trust democratic principles in the abstract but assert them on the field of real experience, must loudly and clearly support and sustain them.
They can be reached at

Ron Isaac

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