As Columbia’s Endowment Grows to $14 Billion, Student Workers Demand Living Wage

In the largest strike happening right now in the United States, 3,000 student workers at New York City’s Columbia University are on their fifth week of strike. Today, the student workers are asking for help to shut down Columbia University. Striking student worker, Johannah King-Slutzky, accuses Columbia’s administration of an “illegal form of retaliation” for threatening to replace the striking student workers who do not return to work by Friday. Many Columbia faculty members protested Monday’s actions in solidarity. “Graduate student labor is the invisible labor of the university,” says Jack Halberstam, professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University. “We’re bankrupting a whole generation in order to provide more profits for the university.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: “Solidarity Forever,” sung on the picket line of the student workers at Columbia University who are on strike for a fair contract. This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.orgThe War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. Columbia University is the site of the largest strike in America right now. The private university is being resisted by three thousand students workers, both undergraduate and graduate. They are now in their fifth week of strike and the stakes keep rising. Columbia has threatened to replace all 3,000 of the striking student workers if they don’t return to work by Friday. Paul Brown, an organizer from the Student Workers of Columbia and United Auto Workers Local 2110, spoke Monday at a demonstration on campus.

PAUL BROWN: Nothing really happens if an administrator is sick. However, if a student or facilities worker takes a day off or a postdoc takes a day off, classes would be cancelled and other such things. So I guess just really kind of reorienting the perception and the culture of graduate school from like, “Oh, we’re just students, we should be glad to be here” to respecting the labor that we put into this institution.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, many Columbia faculty members walked out of their classes in a show of solidarity with the striking student workers and joined their picket line on the campus’s iconic College Walk. This is Jack Halberstam, English professor, speaking at the protest.

JACK HALBERSTAM: I think it’s important that the university understand that this isn’t just about the demands that you’re making, which, by the way, are utterly reasonable demands. What is the problem with cost-of-living increases? Dental care. As someone who went into debt for root canals as a graduate student — yes, please, dental care. These are essential. Then comes the difficult issue that is third-party arbitration. After yesterday’s meeting, I feel that I have a better understanding of this issue. It is important to remember that this strike is taking place in a wider context. To student workers, I will say this: We are here for you. We stand with and for you. We see you. We will fight alongside of you. Faculty allies, I say, this fight is ours. This is our university. This is our chance right now to say “no” to the corporate university. This is not Goldman Sachs.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Jack Halberstam will join us in a moment. Today the student workers call on others to help them close down the university from 8:01 to 6:06. They ask that you not cross your picket line. They’re asking professors and students not to enter campus, not to go to classes, not to hold classes. One of their slogans is “New York is Still a Union Town” and members of other unions from around the city are expected to join in solidarity.

For more, we’re joined by the professor you just heard, Jack Halberstam, Professor of English and Gender Studies at Columbia University and by Johannah King-Slutzky, a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, rank and file member of Student Workers of Columbia. We welcome both of you to Democracy Now! Johannah, let’s begin with you. This is currently the largest strike in America. Can you tell us why you’re striking? Columbia students are not the first to strike this year.

JOHANNAH KINGSLUTZKY: That’s right. Thank you for having us on this program. This is our second strike for the year. We also struck last spring. We have very basic demands. Our priority contract articles, Jack mentioned in the speech you just heard, are a raise so we can meet cost of living standards. We have a lower income than any peer institution in terms of cost-of-living. We are also asking for vision and dental insurance. We also demand protections against discrimination and sexual harassment. We are also asking for full unit recognition for all members who were recommended by the National Labor Relations Board to be allowed to join. Some of our legal members have been kept out by the university. We are really motivated — as Professor Halberstam said in the speech you guys heard, we really see ourselves as part of a broader labor movement both in higher education, which has been facing terrible trends of adjunctification and administrative overreach and in the labor movement overall.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about what precisely the student workers do at Columbia and what the university’s response has been to your demands?

JOHANNAH KINGSLUTZKY: Students are the majority of the workers at the university, or at most instructional workers and researchers. We do the research that gets the university grant money. We are teachers. We are research assistants and teaching assistants. I teach my own class. Many of my colleagues teach the exact same classes as a professor. We’re the ones who have the most face-time with the undergraduates who are paying Columbia’s bills, paying tuition.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Columbia, like many universities, is increasingly turning to contingent lecturers and student workers to teach the majority of their courses.

JOHANNAH KINGSLUTZKY: Yeah. It is a major problem in higher education. There has been a shift towards contingent faculty. This is a way that the university can quickly and easily replace these people. They have very limited rights. They earn much less. Graduate workers are also facing a similar upheaval. It feels almost like we are being slaughtered as lambs. I at least and many of my colleagues feel like there’s a really good chance that we are going to become one of these adjuncts or contingent faculty members after we graduate. That is one reason we are motivated to fight this battle.

We see this as telling university administrators that they have billions and even billions of dollars in reserves that could easily be used to pay graduate workers, adjuncts, TAs, and undergrads that they can pay us a living wages. They have said outright that they can afford to pay us a living wage and that they just don’t think it’s prudent, that they don’t want to. If you can afford to pay us a living wage, I don’t really understand why one of my colleagues, whether they are a grad worker or an adjunct or a full professor, should have to do things like not take his son to the dentist because we don’t get dental coverage or because we don’t make enough money to pay for dental coverage out-of-pocket.

AMY GOODMAN: I would like to read the email that Daniel Driscoll, Vice President of Columbia University Human Resources, sent to over 3,000 Columbia University students last week. It has been made publicly. It reads in part, “In order to plan coverage for the Spring term in a timely fashion, the following categories of student officers will receive their letter in the normal course: (a) student officers who are currently working as shown by their attestations, (b) students who are not currently on appointment, or (c) student officers who are currently on strike but return to work by December 10, as shown by their attestation for the current pay period. Please note that striking student officers who return to work after December 10, 2021 will be appointed/assigned to suitable positions if available.” Can you respond to what the university is doing? Talk about the importance of today, this day, and the growing action.

JOHANNAH KINGSLUTZKY: The email was extremely alarming, even though the language is not very familiar. For those who can’t speak administrator, what they’re saying is that they are planning to replace those of us who remain on strike through the end of the week. This is illegal retaliation. We are on an unfair labor practice strike which protects us from our labor being permanently replaced and yet they’re threatening to do that very thing. It is illegal and it is scary because the university has a much larger megaphone, much greater power than we have. Therefore, it is easy for them get away with illegal activity such as this.

So, we’re shutting down campus today in order to show the university that we and other unions within the city and faculty are not content with them bulldozing on us. It is not only illegal, but also unjust to fire people like myself. I stand to lose both my job and my teaching appointment. I have my class next semester that I am supposed teach and it is possible that I won’t be able to go back to it because of my legally protected right not to withhold my labor.

We are holding a huge picket. For those who are in New York City, you’re welcome to come down to our campus and join us in the picket. It’s going to be a very joyful experience. We are asking all faculty and students to refrain from crossing the picket, whether they are attending class or holding it. Paul said in the speech you shared that teachers, which are graduate students like me shut down the university and stop working, it grinds to a grinding halt. And we want to make that clear.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I would like Professor Jack Halberstam to join the conversation. He is Professor of English & Gender Studies at Columbia University. Could you speak briefly about the response of faculty to the strike? Also, my understanding is that Columbia’s endowment right now is a little bit over $14 billion. It has grown by about $3 billion over the past year. Could you speak about the university’s ability to meet the demands made by the strikers

JACK HALBERSTAM: Juan, thank you. Johannah has already been very articulate about the fact the university can meet students’ demands but does not. Despite the fact, the university stated that it was going into a type of financial freefall. COVIDIt turns out that universities, along with many corporate stakeholders, did very well during the recession. COVID Stock market. Some believe the endowment grew to $3.1 billion. We were all asked to take part in austerity actions during the recession. COVID But, as is the case with many corporate entities, people don’t get to share in the profits after the financial crisis is over.

What the students are saying is that New York is an incredibly expensive place to live and you’re supposed to be offered a graduate education that does not put you in debt. This generation of intellectuals is currently burdened by student debt. They are also looking ahead to a future in the which, Johannah said that their labor has been given out to adjuncts who don’t have any protection, very few benefits, and no chance to save for retirement. So what we’re doing is we’re bankrupting a whole generation in order to provide more profits for the university. It is not only unethical, but it is also illegal.

Although the faculty response has been strong and supportive in the humanities, and the social sciences, there is not the same response from the university. Many of us are aware that the university does less value the work being done in the humanities than it does in the professional schools. These schools then return money to universities in many, many ways. The faculty is concerned about a larger project to reduce the humanities. This is the place where people are trained to think critically about the world they live in and to think radically how to change it. Grad students are fully aware of this fact and are fighting this battle from many sides. They expected 37 faculty to attend the rally yesterday. Over 100 people were present, and over 100 faculty attended. Many of these faculty were prominent and had real political commitments.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you tell us more about the letter sent to James Valentini, Columbia College Dean. It was written by faculty expressing their opinion that the lack of graduate student labour has harmed undergraduate education. These harms will only be worsened if the strike continues. Some are talking about not being allowed to grade the students, and parents are now weighing in. Can you speak about what it is like to be a Columbia student and teach?

JACK HALBERSTAM: Oh, yeah. The invisible labor of the university is graduate student labor. Graduate students are the invisible labor behind a class. I am currently teaching a class with 90 students, and three TAs. Without those TAs I get 40 to 40 emails per day. Papers are not graded. Discussions are not held. No office hours are held. Undergraduate education suffers immensely.

Johannah also said something that is very important: a lot of teaching at Columbia is done in graduate students. People who pay $50,000 to $60,000 per year are often being taught by student instructors who earn $30,000 per year. They are not being taught in the classroom of the Nobel Prize-winning professor on whose reputation Columbia is built. They’re often being taught by graduate students who are underpaid and undervalued.

The faculty have become very frustrated by the way that the administration is not giving us reasons for why they won’t settle with the student workers. These letters are a result of that frustration. This is what motivates these letters. People are saying, “Hey, maybe I would even support the university. But what is the university’s position?” Nobody really knows. No message has gone out other than “We don’t want to respond to this.” It is very, very frustrating as a professor. It’s very frustrating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Halberstam, for many years you have been a tenured professor at Columbia. How does this strike compare with other protests at Columbia University while you were there?

JACK HALBERSTAM: I’ve only been at Columbia for five years. But there is a long history — as Professor Mae Ngai said at the rally the other day — a long history of student protest at Columbia going back to 1968 when students protested segregation policies and protested the university’s support of the Vietnam War. Those were powerful protests, including hunger strikes, which led to the creation of some Columbia programs in race/ethnicity.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m afraid we’re going to have to end with the person you’re speaking to, who just asked you that question, Professor Halberstam, and that is our very own Juan González was one of the leaders of that student strike that you’re referring to in 1968, Juan.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, indeed. I also remember Mae Ngai back then. Before she became a well-respected historian and professor, she was quite active in her time. But I think that it is critical — I think back then, even some of the major professors of those days, people like Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein were big supporters of the students and they helped quite a bit in keeping our morale going to be able to emerge victorious in that strike.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to say thank you to you both for being there. Jack Halberstam, Columbia University Professor of English, Gender Studies, and Johanna King Slutzky, rank-and-file member of Student Workers of Columbia. Johanna King Slutzky is a PhD student in Columbia’s English & Comparative Literature Department.

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