Perspective | Columbia strike empowers graduate employee unions  


The Daily Illini Photo File

GEO members go on strike outside of Altgeld Hall on Mar. 2, 2018. Columbia University’s recent labor strike victory motivates and readies graduate employee unions for the future.

By Austin Hoffman, Owen MacDonald and Ben Wallis

Late on the evening of January 6, Student Workers of Columbia, the labor union that represents over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate workers at the University of Columbia, reached a tentative agreement with university administration, concluding a historic 10-week strike.

The contract includes significant wage increases, more comprehensive healthcare coverage and a process to seek third-party arbitration in cases of workplace discrimination and harassment.

These wins come despite significant retaliation and misinformation from Columbia administrators, including threats to not offer jobs to grad workers in the spring semester if the strike continued. However, the solidarity demonstrated by undergraduate students, faculty, staff and the community was instrumental, along with the strike, in exerting decisive pressure on the Columbia administration.

Their victory also came on the heels of numerous other labor actions in higher education by graduate and contingent workers, including strikes by grad workers at New York University last spring and Harvard in October demanding similar wage increases and workplace protections. 

The academic labor movement extends far beyond these prominent East Coast universities and includes students and workers other than TAs and RAs. Here at the University, graduate workers also have a union of our own, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO). We have been organizing since the mid-1990s and won collective bargaining rights in 2002.

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Since that time, we have secured significant gains for graduate workers at the University, but our fight continues. Even though Champaign-Urbana is a mid-sized college town, we face many of the same structural problems that our colleagues at Columbia do. The current minimum wage for a TA or GA at UIUC is $19,300 for a 9-month contract, and we are not guaranteed summer employment or healthcare.

However, according to MIT, a living wage for a single adult in Champaign County is over $30,000 before taxes; this number is considerably higher for the many graduate workers who have families and dependents.

Since our healthcare is tied to our employment status, we are dropped from our healthcare plans from June to August. If we want coverage, we are forced to pay for it out of pocket; in summer 2021 the price tag for this was $927 thanks to a 2020 Board of Trustees vote that raised health insurance premiums by more than 30% for undergraduates and graduate students.

A significant portion of our members are also rent-burdened or spend more than a third of their income on housing and utilities.

The financial precarity we are faced with as grad workers is a direct result of the low wages we are paid by the University, forcing us to make difficult decisions about, for example, whether to pay for health insurance or rent, to keep the lights on or eat well or whether we need to apply for forms of government assistance, etc.

Our demands to the administration have always been simple: Compensate us fairly for our labor, provide us with comprehensive benefits and treat us with dignity in the workplace.

Unfortunately, the administration has fought GEO at every step, from the formation of our union and through each bargaining cycle, offering meager raises and benefits that significantly lag behind inflation. This is despite the fact that TAs teach approximately half of all undergraduate courses at the University — not to mention the vital labor and research that GAs, RAs and hourly employees provide to enrich the intellectual output of the university and bring in funding.

It is only through organizing that we have gotten wage increases, healthcare, immigration leave and a comprehensive grievance procedure. Many of these wins were the direct result of labor strikes in 2009 and 2018 that brought the university to a screeching halt.

A strike is the last resort for workers when negotiations with an employer break down. They are not undertaken lightly and are incredibly disruptive — most of all to the striking workers. But since institutions of higher education, private or public, are increasingly run like corporations with presidents, provosts and deans raking in CEO-like salaries, we have seen that strikes are one of the only things that will hold university administrators to account.

It is an exhausting but necessary task to constantly remind them of one simple fact: Universities work because we do, and only because we do.

The recent history of the academic labor movement debunks the idea that universities are liberal institutions that systematically propagate progressive ideas, values or policies. The University is no exception here. Even though any time anyone enters the quad they pass by a plaque that announces the University as a center of “Learning and Labor,” this administration consistently undermines both.

The workers who make this university run on a day-to-day basis are underpaid, overworked and devalued.

This includes our adjunct and contingent colleagues, the building service and food service workers and clerical workers across the university community and the undergraduate students thrust into ill-defined and unsafe learning conditions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The University administration will, however, soon have a chance to learn from this history and set an example for its peer institutions. The GEO’s contract ends in August, and we will begin bargaining during the Spring 2022 semester. Columbia workers struck for ten weeks in their fight for dignity, better working conditions and better student learning conditions. Collectively, we must ask this administration: are you going to make us do the same?


Austin, Owen and Ben are members of the GEO.

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