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2021 Columbia University Strike

The 2021 Columbia University strike was a labor strike involving graduate students at Columbia University in New York City . The strike, which began on March 15, 2021, was organized by the Graduate Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers Local 2110, a labor union representing student workers at the university. This union was formed in December 2016 and has had a contentious relationship with the university since its founding, with the university only agreeing to recognize the union in 2019. That same year, the union and university began to negotiate a labor contract, but disagreements between the two entities have prevented an agreement from being made. The main issue concerns union recognition, with the university recognizing only fully-funded doctoral students as union members, while the union also recognizes master's students and undergraduate teaching assistants as members. Additional issues include disagreements over health benefits and child care, among others. While the union voted in March 2020 to authorize strike action, these plans were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in February 2021, still without a labor contract, the union announced their intent to strike the following month. The strike began on March 15 as an open-ended strike action, with no set end date. The strike coincided with a tuition strike that had been coordinated by the local chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Picketing and other forms of protest were held at numerous Columbia locations throughout New York City, and multiple elected officials and politicians announced their support for the strikers. On April 19, a contract proposal was submitted for ratification by the union members, but it was rejected in a rank-and-file vote. Following this, a vote was held in early May to determine the future of the strike, with a majority of voters choosing to end the strike, which officially ended on May 13. Following the end of the strike, on July 3, new leaders for the union were elected who promised to continue to push for a labor contract with the university. Additionally, the name of the union was changed to the Student Workers of Columbia. While negotiations were set to resume on August 25, a disagreement between who should be allowed to attend the meeting caused an impasse, with Columbia pushing for a closed-door meeting with a limited number of attendees and the union wanting the negotiations open to all members. On September 15, the union initiated another strike authorization vote and filed an unfair labor practice charge against the university.

undergraduate teaching graduate students labor contract

1. Background

1.1. Unionization at Columbia

In a 2018 article, The New York Times stated that "[t]he question of whether graduate students at private universities can unionize has seesawed for years, depending, in part, on the political leanings of the members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)."[1] In 2000, the board ruled in favor of allowing graduate students at New York University (NYU) to unionize, leading to a surge in similar unionization at several American universities. However, in a 2004 ruling regarding a labor union at Brown University, the board reversed its decision and ruled that teaching assistants are not covered under federal labor law.[2] In 2016, the board would again reverse its decision in a case involving a unionization effort at Columbia University in New York City .[3] In December of that year, following the ruling, graduate students at the university voted 1,602 to 623 to unionize with the United Auto Workers (UAW), with approximately 3,500 graduate students as part of this new union,[4] called the Graduate Workers of Columbia–United Auto Workers (GWC–UAW) Local 2110.[1] Shortly afterwards, the university appealed to the board, which found that the vote had been fair and that the union should be recognized.[5] In January 2018, the university stated they would not bargain with the union, prompting legal proceedings in a federal appeals court.[5] In April, the union performed a one-week strike over the university's refusal to recognize them.[1][6][7] By 2019, Columbia had agreed to recognize the union.[8]

1.2. Contract Negotiations

Starting in 2019, the union and university began to negotiate over their first labor contract,[9] with the union's bargaining unit meeting with university officials for the first time on February 26 of that year.[9] However, after over a year, no agreement had been reached between the two parties.[9] The main point of contention between the two groups was on the issue of union recognition, as the university recognized only doctoral students who were fully funded as union members, while the union also recognized students pursuing a master's degree and undergraduate students working as teaching assistants as well.[9] In addition to expanded recognition, the union was also seeking expanded health benefits and increased subsidies for child care. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union was also pushing for a one-year funding extension for doctoral candidates whose research had been interrupted by pandemic shutdowns.[9] In March 2020, the union voted 1,833 to 77 in favor of strike action against the university.[9][10] However, due to the pandemic, plans for the strike were postponed, and the university and union continued to negotiate.[10]

On February 25, union members gathered on the steps of the Low Memorial Library to announce their intent to strike.[9]

Starting in January 2021, a large group of primarily undergraduate students at Columbia began an unrelated tuition strike, seeking both a decrease in the cost of tuition and an increase in student financial aid during the pandemic.[11] The strike was in large part organized by the local chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), who also supported the GWC–UAW and was working with them in their contract negotiations,[11] with full recognition of the union being an additional demand of the tuition strike.[9] During the strike, a deadline of February 25 was instated, after which point, if no agreement between the union and university had been made, the union would prepare for strike action.[11] On February 25, with no agreement in place after 64 bargaining sessions,[12] union members gathered on the steps of the Low Memorial Library and announced their intent to begin striking on March 15.[9][13] At the time of the announcement, an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator stated that "[a]bout 10 demands" were still being discussed, with full union recognition being chief among them.[9] U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed her support for the union by sending coffee and doughnuts to the GWC–UAW members,[9] while additional support was voiced by New York City Council member Mark Levine.[13] On March 8, interim provost Ira Katznelson sent an open letter addressing the strike notice, claiming that, while both sides were working towards an agreement, the union's demands for wage increases were "neither reasonable nor responsible in present circumstances".[14] An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticized Katznelson's approach to the situation, calling his stance hypocritical based on his previous involvement with the labor movement and even calling him a "labor sympathizer".[15] A March 11 article in the Spectator reported that the union and university were still holding bargaining sessions in an attempt to avoid the strike action, though the 10 points of contention were still unaddressed at that point.[12] The last day of official bargaining discussions between the two groups was on March 12.[10]

2. Course of the Strike

On March 15, with no agreement between the university and union, the strike officially began,[16][17] affecting an approximate 3,000 members of the GWC–UAW.[10][18] A GoFundMe page was set up to serve as a strike fund, which raised US$57,000 that first day.[16] Picketing commenced at several locations around the university, including at College Walk and at the intersection of Broadway and 116th Street.[18] Starting on March 17,[19] additional picketing took place at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Washington Heights, with additional picketing scheduled over the next several days at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center.[7] On March 18, picketing expanded to the part of the university in Manhattanville.[19] Over the course of the first week of the strike, multiple elected officials and candidates voiced their support for the strike, including 2021 New York City mayoral candidates Maya Wiley and Scott Stringer (who is also the current New York City Comptroller[7]), New York City Council member Brad Lander, and Manhattan District Attorney candidate Eliza Orlins, among others.[19] Additionally, the Spectator reported that numerous undergraduate students were in support of the strike, including the president of the Class of 2024.[20] On March 18, union and university representatives met over Zoom for a bargaining session, during which the Spectator reported, "tensions were higher than usual".[21] By the end of the first week of the strike, the Spectator reported that both sides were considering outside mediation to help in the negotiations.[21] The next meeting between the two groups at this time was scheduled for March 23.[21] On March 19, the graduate union for NYU announced that they would be holding a vote to authorize strike action against their respective university, with the GWC–UAW announcing their support.[22]

U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman (left) and New York City Council member Carlina Rivera attended picket lines in support of the strikers on April 2.

On March 24, news website Bwog reported that, following the March 23 meeting between the union and university, the two parties were primarily focused on discussing issues regarding arbitration for claims made by union members of harassment and discrimination, with the union pushing for third-party arbitration in those cases.[24] On March 31, the Columbia Law School chapter of the Law School Democrats of America canceled an event with former U.S. Representative Ben McAdams in a show of solidarity with the strikers.[25] On April 1, the graduate student union at North Carolina State University published an op-ed in the Technician wherein they voiced their support for the Columbia union.[26] On April 2, U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman and New York City Council member Carlina Rivera attended pickets and voiced their support, with Bowman comparing the efforts of the GWC–UAW members to the Bessemer union drive, saying "Capitalism is destroying our humanity, [but] we are going to win".[23] Later that day, the bargaining unit for the GWC–UAW voted 7–3 to accept an offer by the university to have outside mediation in exchange for a pause on strike action. According to polling of GWC–UAW members, only a small fraction approved of the bargaining unit's decision, with one member of the unit who had voted against the offer claiming in an article published by the Spectator that "It was very clear to me that many other members of the bargaining committee were unwilling to continue striking, no matter what".[27] As the decision was made on a Friday, GWC–UAW members returned to work the following Monday, April 5.[28] That same day, following a vote organized by the local YDSA chapter, students at Columbia ended their tuition strike.[28][29] Despite the bargaining unit's decision, GWC–UAW members in the university's religion department stated they would continue to strike until the union's demands are met.[30]

On April 19, the bargaining committee submitted a proposed contract for a vote by rank-and-file members. The committee had voted 7–3 to accept the contract, which included agreements for increased pay and other benefits, but lacked agreements for neutral third-party arbitration in cases regarding harassment and discrimination. Voting took place between April 21 and April 30.[31] The contract failed approval as union members voted 1,093–970 to continue negotiations. Approximately 63% of all GWC–UAW members voted. Union members were opposed to certain agreements that were absent in the contract, such as third-party arbitration, a living wage, complete recognition of the bargaining unit, and full dental coverage. According to the Spectator, the vote marked the first time in history a graduate student union has voted to reject a tentative agreement.[32] Following this, on May 4, the union announced that they would be holding a vote among their members between May 5 and May 12 on whether or not to continue the strike.[33] On May 6, the seven bargaining unit members who voted to accept the contract resigned from the unit, alleging "toxic internal politics that have long been present in our union".[34] This came after a petition had circulated among union members calling for new bargaining unit members, with the resigning members stating they were stepping down in order to "restore [the] democratic mandate" of the unit.[35] At the time of their resignation, the petition had over 500 signatures.[34] The remaining three members resigned on May 13.[34] That day, following a vote of 771 to end and 323 to continue,[36] the strike officially ended.[34]

3. Aftermath

On July 3, union elections were held that saw the election of a new ten-person bargaining committee, composed of eight newly elected individuals and two who had previously served during the strike. This new bargaining committee promised to promote a "more democratic" union as they planned to continue to push for a labor contract during the upcoming fall semester. Additionally, during the elections, the name of the union was changed to the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC).[37] In early August, the Spectator reported on a change to the stipend pay schedule for graduate students where, instead of receiving a large lump sum at the beginning of their semesters, they would instead receive their stipends on a semi-monthly basis. SWC contended that this change may have been a response to the strike, arguing that stipend pay that is paid out semi-monthly as opposed to in an upfront lump sum could be easier to use as leverage in the event of a graduate student strike.[38] The first round of renewed bargaining sessions between the union and university were scheduled to begin on August 25.[39] However, this meeting did not occur due to a disagreement between the university and union. According to union bylaws ratified over the summer, all bargaining sessions were to be open to all union members, while the university was willing to meet only in a closed-door meeting with the bargaining committee and a maximum of five other members.[40]

On September 15, in part due to the impasse, SWC authorized a vote for strike authorization, which would allow the bargaining committee to call a strike at any time. Voting on this is scheduled to end on September 27. Additionally, SWC filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB over Columbia's changed disbursement policies, calling them "illegal retaliatory practices". SWC's strike authorization vote is occurring at the same time as one amongst student workers at Harvard University, another Ivy League university.[40] On September 30, the union revealed that the strike authorization vote had passed in a vote of 1,804–234.[41]


  1. Chen, David W. (April 24, 2018). "Columbia Graduate Students Walk Out Over Union Fight" (in en-US). The New York Times (The New York Times Company). ISSN 0362-4331. 
  2. Smallwood, Scott (July 16, 2004). "Labor Board Rules Against TA Unions at Private Universities". 
  3. Schmidt, Peter (August 24, 2016). "Ruling Pushes Door to Grad-Student Unions 'Wide Open'". 
  4. Harris, Elizabeth A. (December 9, 2016). "Columbia Graduate Students Vote Overwhelmingly to Unionize" (in en-US). The New York Times (The New York Times Company). ISSN 0362-4331. 
  5. Harris, Elizabeth A. (January 30, 2018). "Columbia University Says It Won't Bargain With Graduate Student Union" (in en-US). The New York Times (The New York Times Company). ISSN 0362-4331. 
  6. Lee, Eli (April 25, 2018). "Picket lines and canceled classes mark beginning of graduate student strike". 
  7. Mok, Jane; Tereshchenko, Victoria (March 18, 2021). "The graduate workers union strike: explained". 
  8. Yaffe-Bellany, David (September 20, 2019). "Graduate Students, After Gains in Union Efforts, Face a Federal Setback" (in en-US). The New York Times (The New York Times Company). ISSN 0362-4331. 
  9. Abrahamson, Talia (February 26, 2021). "Graduate Workers Union announces intention to strike on March 15". 
  10. "Graduate Workers Begin Strike For Fair Contract, Bringing Many Courses To A Halt". March 15, 2021. 
  11. Olivier, Indigo (February 18, 2021). "The Columbia University student strike is about far more than tuition" (in en). Guardian Media Group. 
  12. Abrahamson, Talia (March 11, 2021). "Strike deadline looms over bargaining discussions, days before GWC student workers walk out". 
  13. ""It's A Beautiful Day For A Strike Deadline!" Columbia Graduate Workers Union Holds Rally Ahead Of Strike Deadline Of March 15th". February 25, 2021. 
  14. "Interim Provost Speaks On Upcoming Graduate Workers Strike". March 8, 2021. 
  15. Patel, Vimal (March 11, 2021). "A Labor Sympathizer, Now on the Management Side, Calls for 'Mutual Realism'". 
  16. Bachman, Brett; Algar, Selim (March 15, 2021). "Graduate student workers at Columbia University go on strike" (in en-US). News Corp. 
  17. Houlihan, Glenn (March 20, 2021). "Columbia Graduate Workers Are on Strike. Other Higher-Ed Workers Should Follow Their Lead." (in en-US). 
  18. Abrahamson, Talia (March 16, 2021). "After two years of unsuccessful negotiations, student-workers are officially on strike". 
  19. Melbourne, Abby (March 19, 2021). "Local political candidates join picket lines, endorse student-worker strike". 
  20. Pagkas, Stella (March 24, 2021). "Undergraduates express solidarity with ongoing student-worker strike". 
  21. Abrahamson, Talia (March 19, 2021). "Negotiations remain at standstill between Columbia, GWC-UAW nearly one week into strike". 
  22. Karpen, Elizabeth (March 19, 2021). "Five days into Columbia student-worker strike, NYU graduate workers announce strike vote". 
  23. Fitzgerald-Diaz, Grace (April 2, 2021). "Representative Jamaal Bowman And Councilwoman Carlina Rivera Join GWC-UAW Picket Line". 
  24. "Strike Update: University Proposes Changes To EOAA; Union Pushes For Further Guarantees". March 24, 2021. 
  25. Schermele, Zachary (April 2, 2021). "Concerns over learning loss, grades mount in third week of graduate workers strike". 
  26. "OP-ED: Solidarity with the graduate workers of Columbia University and their strike" (in en). April 1, 2021. 
  27. Abrahamson, Talia (April 3, 2021). "GWC-UAW student workers' strike put on pause during mediation talks". 
  28. Abrahamson, Talia (April 6, 2021). "Facing fall registration and diploma holds, students vote to end Columbia tuition strike". 
  29. Kahme, Lauren (April 7, 2021). "Columbia-Barnard YDSA Tuition Strike Ended". 
  30. Soni, Aruni; Schermele, Zachary (April 8, 2021). "As most student-workers return to work, the religion department continues to strike". 
  31. Abrahamson, Talia (April 19, 2021). "GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee to present contract for ratification vote". 
  32. Abrahamson, Talia (May 2, 2021). "Dissatisfied with contract negotiations and bargaining committee, GWC-UAW student-workers vote to reject tentative agreement". 
  33. "Vote to End or Continue the Strike Starts Tomorrow" (in en-US). May 4, 2021. 
  34. Sentner, Irie (May 19, 2021). "All 10 GWC-UAW bargaining committee members resign following months of internal tension". 
  35. "An Interview With The Three Dissenting Members Of The GWC-UAW Bargaining Committee" (in en). May 15, 2021. 
  36. "Notice of Elections for Interim Election Committee and Bargaining Committee Vacancies" (in en-US). May 14, 2021. 
  37. Melbourne, Abby (July 27, 2021). "Student-worker union elections result in new name and bargaining committee". 
  38. Melbourne, Abby (August 4, 2021). "Change to stipend pay schedule leaves many graduate students struggling to afford fall expenses". 
  39. "New Name, Same Struggle: An Update On The Student Workers Of Columbia And The Future Of Contract Negotiations". August 23, 2021. 
  40. "Student Workers Of Columbia Begin Vote For Strike Authorization". September 15, 2021. 
  41. Melkonyan, Victoria (October 1, 2021). "SWC Votes In Favor Of Strike Authorization". 
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