One morning three years ago this April, I found myself in front of Alma Mater, nervously handing out picket signs to a small group of my fellow graduate workers. We were apprehensive, but I knew what we were fighting for.
By that time, it had been two years since I cast my democratic vote, alongside other student workers at Columbia, to form a union. We won, with 72 percent of the vote—but the university refused to even acknowledge us. Our handmade signs read "Recognize our Union!", "Pro-Union = Anti-Sexual Harassment" and "Strike! Make History."
Today, as we prepare to strike again, the power of that morning comes back to me.
Unions Offer Protection
It was crystal-clear to me then why a union was essential: as an engineer, I had worked in places where I was the only woman. Between horrible press accounts and campus whisper networks, I was well aware that there was no real recourse for women or people of color who were harassed, abused or discriminated against while working at Columbia. In addition, Columbia's facilities were in disrepair—in some labs, filthy water ran from the faucets used for experiments.
When my partner and I first moved to New York City, we depended on my take-home pay of about $35,000 to survive. I wondered then how parents thrive here. I later learned that the meager subsidy and lack of student access to child-care facilities on campus pushes many women and parents out of our university.
And even though our union had meticulously followed every step in the process, had majority participation in our election and had won with a strong margin, Columbia refused to recognize us. Administrators made clear that neither our democratic voice nor the law would compel them to act. We had only one course of action left: strike.
So we did. As the morning wore on, over 1,500 of my colleagues went on strike and massed on the Low Library steps, and support poured in from New York City's Mayor, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Congressman Jerry Nadler, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and famous intellectuals, celebrities and activists. TV cameras rolled, The New York Times interviewed workers, and people from across the city showed up to march with us.
At one point, a group of construction workers got off the subway in hardhats and joined the picket line. There was a huge roar from the crowd to see such support from workers all across the city.
Power in Solidarity
I had heard that there was power in solidarity, but that day I saw it in action. And it worked—Columbia agreed to recognize us.
But today, three years later, we find ourselves at a similar juncture. Because even though Columbia offered to bargain, management has stalled for years, and we still do not have a contract.
At the forefront of open issues impeding progress is their blanket refusal to even discuss health care. In the course of negotiations, Columbia unilaterally cancelled our high-coverage health-insurance option. This has disproportionately affected those most in critical need of care throughout the pandemic.
One worker testified about needing an emergency open-heart surgery during her program. Following Columbia's change to our health benefits, she could not afford the new out-of-pocket maximum. She struggled to pay her rent, even after picking up additional teaching appointments while attempting to recover. Columbia's negotiators were unmoved.
In addition, they will not discuss offering neutral, third-party arbitration to those who experience harassment or abuse. Even prior to the DeVos-era rollbacks to Title IX, the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine found in a 2018 report that Title IX more frequently serves to defend universities from liability than to offer justice to victims.
Seeking recourse through our union's grievance procedure should help to subvert the power dynamics in academia that discourage victims from reporting. Access to neutral arbitration in our contract is crucial to providing access to the real recourse survivors need to move forward. And, when paired with family-friendly policies, this change could substantially reduce the gender and racial-equity gaps that are so persistent in academia, and at Columbia specifically.
I am ready to strike again.
If Columbia won't agree to a reasonable contract by March 15, we will hit the streets. We have already worked through our union's internal democratic process—we held a strike-authorization vote that passed with 96-percent support. I am confident that our next strike will be even more powerful—and empowering—than the first.
This fight has been long, spanning more than five years thus far. We have learned a lot, including the fact that many of the issues we face stem from systemic problems that are built into academia's infrastructure. It takes collective action to restructure things in a way that offers justice and equity to everyone who participates. We will keep fighting, and keep striking, until we have a contract that makes these changes and improves our working conditions overall.
Editor's note: Ms. Baublitz is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.
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