Why Women Graduate Workers at Columbia Are Organizing for a Strike
I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this.
Two years ago when I posted a Facebook status announcing that I would be going to Columbia for my PhD, my notifications were flooded with congratulations. Then I got a message from a recent graduate from my program saying that we needed to talk. Over a drink, my friend named a few professors at the University and within the department with whom I should “never be alone in a room.” As with most serial sexual harassers within an enabling community, everyone knew who they were. Everyone has known for a long time. Most of us try to steer clear, waiting for faculty to retire, and warning our fellow students in whispers during smoke breaks, begging them not to cite us as their source if they pass on the warning to anyone else. I really shouldn’t even be telling you this.
In the fight for graduate worker unionization, the administrative side likes to pretend that there is a discussion with two sides disagreeing about whether or not graduate students should have dental coverage included in their healthcare. On every level, this is a lie designed to obfuscate the true stakes of our struggle. Make no mistake: private universities are fighting this battle by pouring millions of dollars into union-busting firms like Proskauer Rose because they know this is a battle for the heart of what the university will be. This is a battle over whether academia will continue to be a place for the affluent white male, or whether we can build a university that nurtures the education of and offers sustainable careers for women, the poor, queers, trans people, people of color, and others who are currently systematically weeded out of the institution.
This is about forcing universities to reconcile their public values with the private realm of daily life within the institution. Graduate students are unionizing precisely because the university does so little to protect us from chronic sexual and racial harassment and discrimination. Columbia’s official numbers on sexual harassment are commonly treated as a farce by both graduate and undergraduate women on campus, knowing as we do the culture of silence and terror that descends on anyone who dares attach her name to an accusation. In a recent crowdsourced survey on sexual harassment in the academy conducted by academic depair guru Karen Kelsky, Columbia University appeared over 25 times, more than any other academic institution. As I write, I personally know graduate students at Columbia who have been followed home by professors, who have been drugged and assaulted by fellow graduate students, who have been groped by faculty at their department’s events, who have squirmed in discomfort as a tenured faculty member unzipped the student’s shirt in a bar because it was “so sexy!”, who have endured the indignity of having intimate body parts referenced knowingly by their direct superiors during academic events. I know of an incident in which a white male graduate student at a party mocked the women of color he was harassing by sneeringly referencing the very system that facilitated his immunity from punishment: “If there’s a job opening, who gets it? I do.” I know of entire social networks of powerful male faculty and their male graduate students that are only permeable if you present as a young, non-black, pretty, cis-heterosexual woman. I know these things not because I attended a summit on sexual harassment at this university or because I am a hub of campus political gossip. I know them because they are a part of everyday life within this institution.
And we have tried the avenues of redress that the University prescribes as the appropriate means of resolution. When a professor spent three hours in a class with his arm around the back of my chair and topped off the show by touching my head, neck, and shoulders in front of a classroom — one of the same professors that my concerned friend had warned me about, no prizes for guessing — I spent several days in fear wondering what I could do. I finally decided to go to the Title IX office. They listened to my story; they offered me water; they looked concerned and took notes. Then, to no one’s surprise — least of all my own — absolutely nothing happened. If you can believe it, this is a better-case scenario. At least I avoided the terror of attempted repercussions from this professor and his allies. I am telling you this story precisely because it is the smallest example of a daily reality. I am telling you this story because I can.
What recourse is left for us within institutions that proclaim their horror at Trumpist policies but reproduce the reality of these policies every day? With what monstrous audacity do universities expect us to continue to take their disavowal of Trumpism in good faith when our daily lived experience of these institutions demonstrates that they embody and profit from the white supremacist, anti-worker patriarchy Trump represents? When Trump was elected, a coalition of Ivy League university presidents across the nation made a show of swooning with horror in unison. Here at Columbia, our own Lee Bollinger sent an email to the entire academic body urging us to remember that “In these moments, we must turn to our fundamental values, among them a commitment to freedom of thought and expression, dedication to tolerance and reason, respect for diversity and differing points of view, and a determination to do what we do with the utmost integrity and courage.” In a speech later that week, he stated that the election results were “a challenge to what we stand for.” Now, Bollinger is co-chairing a national committee on the future of voting, claiming that “there is nothing more central to American democracy than the ballot.”
Yet the value of democratic institutions and the rule of law seems to be important to Columbia only under some circumstances. As graduate workers have overwhelmingly voted to unionize (winning a majority of 73% at Columbia, Yes 1601–623 No), administrations have gone rogue, illegally refusing to bargain with workers. In an unwitting echo of a Trumpist trope, the Columbia administration has offered the pathetic allegation of voter fraud ( apparently to the unlikely tune of one thousand ballots cast illegally) to condone their objections to the election results, and — once that appeal was thrown out as utterly baseless — their failed appeal of that decision. At the end of January, Columbia University announced its decision to disregard our union certification and refuse to bargain despite the NLRB’s ruling that the union election had, indeed, delivered a landslide victory to the workers. Ironic coming from President Lee Bollinger, who proudly touts his NAACP award for increasing voting rights for African Americans in his official biography on the university website, while actively pursuing a strategy of casting doubt on a clear democratic mandate to unionize. When he was confronted at a public event about his erosion of democracy, Bollinger admitted that the University had filed objections to the vote because the administration disagreed with the results of the election, saying “This is the principle: I do not think of you as my employee within the University.”
But this refusal to recognize that graduate workers are employees is motivated by fear of being held to an employer’s standard in eradicating the networks of power that converge to exclude people who are not affluent men. The increasing corporatization of the university stops precisely where corporatization would benefit those oppressed by the perduring feudal system of gendered and racialized patronage. Put simply, sexual harassment exists on an institutional scale within this university that would never be tolerated in any other comparable professional work environment in the “knowledge” economy. Universities are desperately mobilizing Trumpist tactics to stave off unionization because unionization provides workers with legal resources, and allows precisely the third-party mediation of cases that our institutions have frantically tried to avoid. Unionization provides exactly the sort of neutral adjudication in cases that will not be muzzled by the terms of settlement that universities were so eager to avoid in the establishment of Title IX. In short, unionization means that this whole game is up.
Once you understand the sea change in fighting sexual harassment unionization offers, it is easy to decode what these insistences that graduate workers are not employees actually mean: the University is terrified of losing control of the sexual harassment adjudication process, because it is going to shed light on how systematically this institution has been built on gendered and racialized exclusion and harassment. The discussion about the role and status of graduate workers in the university — a discussion that our administrators claim to earnestly desire — has already occurred, and graduate workers have made their decision: we are tired of being without recourse at the mercy of administrators whose first priority is protecting the institution.
But instead of respecting the landslide mandate of students to seek legal protection from the endemic dysfunction of our institutions, universities are choosing to engage in industry-wide collusion with an incoming Trumpist labor policy. Ivy-league administrators are pouring money into objections and appeals, waiting nervously for Trump to fill the two vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board with conservatives who will roll back the legal basis of graduate worker unionization. Administrators are blatantly engaging in the illegal suppression of a democratic mandate to end daily sexual and racial harassment and discrimination, and are shameless about their tactics: the propagation of baseless allegations of voter fraud, arrant disregard of democratic procedures, abuse of judicial appeals, and outright collaboration with an incoming Trump labor policy.
The time for the “rational and open debate” that universities claim to value is long over. Graduate students have seen the yawning discrepancy between the values the university proclaims and the values it privately enshrines; we have voted democratically to end the hypocritical contradiction between what the university says it values, and what it is doing to us every day. We have voted to end this hypocrisy because the university administration has proved countless times that it is unwilling to end it itself. It is no surprise to us that the same bureaucrats trumpeting public values that are at gross odds with their carefully hidden private practices should employ duplicitous strategies in attempting to crush the voice of democracy from within demanding reform. Pretending to loathe Trump while actively collaborating with him is just more of the same from these whited-sepulchral institutions.
This statement was written through a collaboration of women-identifying Ph.D. students. Because of the precarity of our position, we each individually claim the right to say “While I did not write this piece, and if asked, will not claim any of the specific statements of harm as my own, I completely endorse this statement.”