A Tale of Two Strikes
Student Workers of Columbia Struggle Against Business Unionism
November 28, 2022
On January 6th, 2022, Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) reached a tentative agreement after almost three years of bargaining. The tentative agreement came after a militant ten-week strike against one of the most union-busting higher-education institutions in the United States—and one of the richest. A year into the pandemic, Columbia University’s endowment increased by a staggering $3.1 billion dollars, while it continued to charge one of the highest tuition rates in the country.1Lyla Trilling, “The E-Word,” April 30th 2021, The Blue and the White, https://www.theblueandwhite.org/post/the-e-word
Erin Duffin, “Most expensive colleges in the United States for the academic year of 2020-2021, by total annual cost,” June 11th 2021, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/244041/most-expensive-colleges-in-the-us/, “IMC CEO Statement on FY21 Endowment returns, https://www.finance.columbia.edu/content/imc-ceo-statement-fy21-endowment-returns Hundreds of workers stayed up well past midnight on a Zoom call to finally arrive at a deal. Throughout the strike, rank-and-file members of the union participated in every aspect of the fight—from drafting tentative articles to organizing their departments to stay on strike. In sharp contrast to previous, business-union style approaches, the Columbia student workers’ strike shows that rank-and-file militancy and democratic reforms lead to increased power in the workplace and at the bargaining table.
Generating the Rank and File Caucus
The ten-week strike was the culmination of a decades-long fight for student worker unionization at private universities. The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) 2016 Columbia decision2https://www.aaup.org/brief/columbia-university-364-nlrb-no-90-august-23-2016 reversed a decade-long precedent of depriving student workers in private universities legal recognition as employees with full unionization rights.3https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2004-05/04-004.html Shortly after, teaching and research assistants voted to affiliate with the United Auto Workers (UAW), a major international union with a longstanding presence on Columbia’s campus, including clerical workers who joined District 65 back in 1985.4https://www.nytimes.com/1985/10/18/nyregion/clerical-workers-strike-columbia-on-pay-issues.html It took another two years, including a one-week strike and a subsequent threat of an indefinite strike, for Columbia to agree to recognize and bargain with the union.
The rank-and-file strategy at Columbia grew in reaction to business unionism. Very early on, organizers interested in building a caucus recognized that what happened within our union was symptomatic of a broader problem within the UAW and the American labor movement. Business unionism is primarily characterized by a lack of accountability and transparency towards members, and a commitment to cooperation with, rather than antagonism against, the boss. This collaborative approach with the employer leads to the erosion of worker power, the neglect of social justice issues, and a tendency towards unnecessary concessions, even on economic issues that business unionism claims to champion. Kim Moody has defined this tendency within the labor movement as “a unionism that sees members primarily as consumers and limits itself to negotiating the price of labor.”5An Injury to All, 2
After decades of undemocratic conservative union leadership, the 2010s saw a resurgence of rank and file and reform caucuses across U.S. unions in sectors including healthcare, education, and transportation. These groups offered an alternative to top-down union leadership and a more aggressive approach to negotiations.6Brenner, Mark. “Reformers Resurgent? A Survey of Recent rank and file Uprisings.” New Labor Forum 22, no. 2 (2013): 78–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718435 Mark Brenner links the success of reform caucuses in the 2010s to the failure of business unionism, arguing that “[i]ronically, as the structures of the institutional labor movement fractured and atrophied, more space was created for local leaders and rank and file activists to experiment, looking less to their state or national bodies for guidance or permission.” 7Ibid., 82.
Within the UAW more specifically, the Autoworker Caravan organized in the Big Three auto plants on the heels of the automobile bailout. They campaigned to reinstate hard-won unemployment benefits and a jobs bank program that were phased out as a condition of the federal loan issued to Chrysler, GM, and Ford with the UAW’s approval. In 2022, a new reform caucus named Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) campaigned successfully for the direct election of the International Executive Board of the UAW. These caucuses showed that building a rank and file base through democratic reforms leads to more resilient unions. In organizing the strike at Columbia, the experience of these unions was critical in informing our strategy.
Barry Eidlin, a founding member of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) argued that rank and file caucuses within UAW academic unions have to contend with Reutherism, an ideology mostly associated with the Administration Caucus (AC).8https://inthesetimes.com/article/advances-in-student-worker-unionism-challenge-the-uaws-traditional-structurhttps://uaw2865history.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/background-on-uaw-structure-and-functioning-aka-why-is-our-union-so-messed-up/ The AC has held the reins of UAW’s leadership since 1947, and is often likened to a “one-party state.”9https://uawd.org/how-the-administration-caucus-came-to-power/ It certainly felt that way at Columbia. Many of the tendencies that Eidlin cites, including lack of transparency between union leadership and the rank and file; the preference for top-down, one-on-one meetings rather than collective or group organizing; the lack of transparency in staff hiring; and the limited role of the membership in decision-making were all part of our experience in the union. Moreover, many academic workers’ unions that have tried to push for political action beyond the frame of the UAW’s usual involvement were met with swift consequences from the union bureaucracy. For example, the UAW leadership at NYU and the University of California suppressed the votes in favor of committing to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction of Israel.10https://makingabetternyu.org/2016/04/22/election-and-referendum-results/ Similar strategies were deployed at Columbia.
Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union began on the heels of an agreement between our employer and the regional leadership of our union. The director of UAW region 9A, unbeknownst to our members, negotiated a bargaining framework with Columbia. Except for one member, the entire Bargaining Committee (BC) endorsed the agreement and urged the membership to vote in favor of it. While the framework provided some important gains, including the recognition of the recently formed postdoctoral workers’ union, , it also came with a serious limitation: it prohibited us from engaging in any strike, disruption of work, or slowdown until April 2020, a year and a half into the future.
Going into bargaining with our employer without the possibility of withholding our labor left us with almost no leverage. Our comrades in NYU’s student workers’ union urged us to reject this deal. In addition to a strike ban in the agreement, the secrecy of the negotiations of the framework was troubling. The vote was held over Thanksgiving weekend, which made discussion of the implications of the framework very difficult. Despite these obstacles, Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) organized a no vote campaign on the framework. The framework passed, but with relatively narrow margins: 1,035 – 720 votes within our union.
Going into the election of a new bargaining committee, these margins suggested that there was space to push for democratic reforms within our union, the most critical of which was open bargaining. A mandate that future bargaining could be attended by the rank-and-file would safeguard against votes on agreements that members had never seen before, a shockingly common occurrence throughout unions in the US. We wanted the whole membership to see how Columbia’s lawyers dismissed our demands at the bargaining table and, at the same time, to show Columbia that the union is more than a few bargaining committee members, we are a mass movement of workers. This measure passed with overwhelming support from the membership.
While our union was under a no-strike clause, Columbia unsurprisingly took advantage of our lack of leverage at the bargaining table. Columbia’s bargaining team scheduled very few negotiation sessions, was chronically late to meetings, and generally came unprepared with no proposals to share. Instead, bargaining sessions were filled with grandstanding and obstruction on the part of Bernie Plum, Columbia’s lawyer from the union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose. Plum made grand speeches berating the union’s elected bargaining team for being unreasonable. Columbia’s continued shaming of the union’s bargaining team through their attack-dog lawyer was embarrassingly met with deference from the majority non-AWDU BC members, who felt that it was necessary to meet the university where it was and bargain a contract that Columbia claimed was “reasonable.”
AWDU members, however, continued to insist on the value of holding the line until we regained strike power. Stalled negotiations made it increasingly clear to members of AWDU that without decisive collective action, no amount of negotiation or quid-pro-quo would get us a new contract. By using these negotiations to create a clear differentiation between non-AWDU and AWDU strategies, the rank and file was increasingly aware that something was amiss, and the solutions that AWDU proposed resonated.
The Movement towards Striking
Indeed, by March 2020, a strike vote was underway in anticipation of the no-strike clause expiring in April. However, one week into the vote, the pandemic had sent New York City into a state of emergency. Columbia responded by moving classes online and clearing residential halls for students to return home. As deaths climbed, attention shifted away from contract negotiations towards the urgent workplace conditions that threatened the lives of student workers. The U.S. government also initiated a full-scale attack on immigration, which only deepened at the onset of the pandemic. Columbia University attempted to restrict payment to international student workers who were not physically on campus, which included many student workers who were forced to move out of the country. Some were stuck abroad and separated from family because of travel bans, while others found themselves suddenly without income as research grants were withdrawn. Those in labs had their research disrupted, while those on the medical campus being called to assist in frontline work found themselves without any personal protective equipment.
It was in these circumstances that workers began organizing to go on strike. After all, they had an overwhelming strike vote empowering the bargaining committee to call a strike. How else were we going to alleviate the immediate difficulties faced by workers across Columbia? Workers looked to the wave of strikes happening amongst teachers, nurses, and other higher education unions, such as the University of California Cost of Living Adjustment strike, for inspiration. Soon, a mass of workers had begun to attend union meetings, demanding the bargaining committee go on strike.
Instead, the bargaining committee voted 6-4 against calling a strike, citing the dangers of striking without majority participation and the inappropriateness of striking for workplace issues beyond the contract fight. It was classic business unionism. In protest, AWDU members on the bargaining committee quit.
During the summer, the few remaining members of the bargaining committee gutted several outstanding articles, including abandoning the popular sanctuary campus article in its entirety and substantially weakening our healthcare proposal. After the insurgent strike was quashed by the majority of the BC, anti-AWDU propaganda was in full swing. The opposing slate warned AWDU had dangerously endorsed a minority strike, which would have led to weakened contract provisions. Insultingly, and disingenuously, they suggested that AWDU had called for COVID researchers to abandon their research, despite our several assurances to the contrary. Despite this setback, AWDU candidates won three seats out of ten in the BC, though this meant we were still outnumbered.
After two years of little headway in bargaining, the BC finally decided to call a strike in the Spring 2021 semester. We were going to strike over five outstanding issues: union security, recognition, healthcare, compensation, and neutral arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment. From the very onset of strike organizing, there were two competing visions of strike power. One camp—the business unionists and their allies—argued that it was not the withdrawal of labor power itself, but the threat to do so that gave us the most leverage. In this view, a bargaining unit has peak power in the lead-up to a strike, and loses power and momentum as the strike continues.
AWDU organizers recognized this argument as a strike-avoidance tactic, and argued that it was not the threat of a strike but the strike itself, the indefinite withdrawal of our labor, that gave us power to reach our demands. We even had to debate the other camp on whether we should issue strike demands. The conservative nature of business unionism was on full display when UAW staffers cautioned that we should “not make promises we could not keep,” and insisted on setting expectations in our organizing one-on-ones that the strike would last for two weeks at most.
Strike One: The Rank and File Challenge to a Business Unionist Strike
The strike began on March 15th following months of organization. The gulf between the rank-and-file and the BC grew increasingly deep. On the sixth day of the strike, a member of the BC showed up to the virtual picket line, where hundreds of workers were busy making phone calls, texting, and emailing the administration. They informed the picketers that our numbers were lower than anticipated, that the strike was ineffective, and that the union had to make concessions to the university.
On March 25th, the BC floated a package at a general body meeting that included significant concessions to Columbia, including raises well below inflation in the first year (three percent), a health fund for emergencies rather than health insurance, and a revamped EOAA process instead of the long-standing union demand for neutral arbitration. Rank-and-file members called for a vote on the proposal. In response, the BC argued that as democratic representatives, they represented the larger unit and therefore did not need to consult the unit in presenting the package to the administration. The BC thus proceeded with sending a package proposal to the University without holding a vote. Instead of a positive response from the University, as the BC had hoped, the union was met with further derision from the University, who also understood the package as a demonstration of weakness. Moreover, the package meant that the Union could no longer easily return to a stronger position at the bargaining table.
This moment encapsulates the fundamental clash between different views of union democracy. The BC championed a formal representative democracy, in which they did not need to consult the unit before making decisive moves at the bargaining table, whereas we had consistently argued and organized for rank-and-file input at every level of the bargaining process. Yet, the bargaining committee had made this argument before: they were drawing on the pretext of a “silent majority” in their decision-making. It was a pretext they would soon be disabused of.
By the third week of the strike, the BC announced they were considering moving towards mediation with Columbia on the condition of “pausing” the strike. They framed Columbia proposing mediation as a concession from the university, whereas we saw it as a move to end the strike quickly while conceding nothing to our demands. After the meeting, the BC argued that they saw the “change of heart on mediation both as an indication of the impact of our strike and as a possible path to a fair contract without further loss of pay to the members of our unit.”
In subsequent general body meetings, rank-and-file members proposed many possible courses of action. Members argued that we should at the very least counter the mediation offer by offering to pause the strike if one (or many) of our major outstanding proposals were adopted. Members demanded a binding vote on whether to enter mediation, which the BC refused. In the end rank and file initiated their own vote. Only six percent of GBM attendees voted in favor of the BC’s strategy. The BC refused to recognize the outcome as legitimate despite high participation. Most union members recognized that the “pause” was effectively an end to the strike and a massive loss of bargaining power, though the BC argued that they could “unpause” if the negotiations went poorly. The UAW Constitution calls for a full membership vote to call off a strike. In this way, the “pause” was a bureaucratic workaround to justify violating this constitutional requirement. On April 2nd, the BC informed the rank and file that they voted 7-3 to pause the strike and unilaterially enter mediation. The reaction from members was swift and furious. The BC’s inbox was flooded with e-mails from members who were not ready to give up.
Our general body meetings became increasingly farcical, with the BC abruptly deciding to adopt the webinar format on Zoom so as to avoid the risk of interruption. After the BC agreed to a tentative agreement with Columbia against the objections of the overwhelming majority of members participating in general meetings, we decided to push for a longer discussion period of nineteen days to give unit members the opportunity to read over the contract. As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle argued, “[t]oo short a time between bargaining and voting denies the right to organize a potential opposition.”11https://labornotes.org/2018/10/getting-fair-contract-vote The BC gave us a much shorter timeframe, opening the vote just two days after the tentative agreement was reached, keeping it open for a scant nine-day voting period.
The shorter timeframe resulted in widespread misinformation about the tentative agreement—even members of the BC were confused as to what exactly they had agreed to. On April 20th, a former BC member pointed out that the tentative agreement language excluded casual research assistants from the unit entirely. The current BC dragged its feet in answering, eventually claiming that those workers were never part of the unit in the first place—a blatant lie. The omission of casual research assistants meant that workers who had gone on strike and lost pay were cut out of the benefits of the tentative agreement, a fact that was not recognized by the BC until well into the voting period.
Organizing a “No” Vote
The failures of the tentative agreement were not for lack of militancy on the part of the union’s membership. Rather, they reflected the intentionally produced disconnect between the negotiating team and the rank-and-file. A vast number of rank-and-file union members had already spoken against the terms of the contract in general body meetings even prior to the ratification vote, and some had even said that they would vote no. These calls suggested broad rank-and-file alignment with AWDU’s more democratic commitments, organization, and strategy. Thus, a campaign to vote no seemed a path to building the power of the rank-and-file. However, contract rejections that go against the recommendation of the negotiating team’s recommendations are rare, and in the case of academic unions in the U.S., unprecedented. Thus, within the short timeframe for the vote, the No Campaign had to hit the ground running.
There were four main arguments for rejection: We demanded full recognition of unit members (including casual research assistants), a neutral arbitration process in cases of discrimination and harassment, a living wage, and a more robust healthcare plan (the same demands that had energized our strike weeks before). With these issues front and center, the No campaign was an opening to build labor militancy. In our organizing discussions, we championed union democracy: the rank-and-file should be empowered to make meaningful decisions about our own working conditions.
In advocating for the more militant and democratic position, we faced several counterarguments, the most frequent one being that we might bargain our way into an even worse contract if we rejected this tentative one. In response, organizers drew on recent examples including the 2019 UPS workers in Western Pennsylvania and in New York, and the 2015 Chrysler plant rejections, all of which resulted in stronger contracts.
We were told again and again that our stance was “anti-union.” We countered that they had a pessimistic view, and that we had a fundamentally different, more hopeful, view of what a union could be. A rejection of the tentative agreement was not a rejection of the union, but a rejection of the bargaining committee’s concessionary approach and an affirmation that the rank-and-file have the right to decide our union’s politics. This stance was a strong message to the administration that we would fight for basic protections in our workplace, and an equally strong message to the business unionists that we were raising the bar regarding what workers could expect from their union.
On April 30, the rushed vote was tallied. This ratification vote had the highest voter turnout ever in our union’s history, which was a testament to the tireless efforts of organizers who reached out to their colleagues. The No vote had won by a narrow margin. Student Workers of Columbia had rejected the tentative agreement endorsed by the BC. Faced with a tentative agreement that would have met none of our strike demands and few of our initial bargaining goals, this was a historic rebuke on two fronts. It simultaneously rejected Columbia and, crucially, the union leadership’s business union approach. Ours was only the second UAW bargaining unit to do so in the past thirty years. Workers were expressing an affirmative message: We want a strong contract that includes all of our members.
After the contract was voted down, the BC finally caved to repeated rank-and-file demands for their resignation. The election to replace the committee was largely led by fresh organizers who were mobilized by the rejection campaign. Newly energized activists were running organizing trainings, distributing flyers, and reaching out to departments across campus. In a feverish election drive, the union membership elected a full rank and file caucus slate to serve as the new BC and passed a set of bylaws that would enshrine a collective decision making structure within our union. The bylaws were essential accountability mechanisms in that they prevented the BC from making decisions without consulting the rank and file. The No vote had turned into a radical affirmation of an optimistic, activist, democratic, and worker run union that was ready to fight and win.
Strike Two: Who has the power?
It soon became clear that voting down the contract and electing a new BC was not, on its own, the path to a strong contract. Although the rejection of the tentative agreement stunned both UAW bureaucrats and Columbia’s management, it was met with harsh reactions from both. UAW staff began to withdraw from the campaign, offering minimal assistance, and recommending minor tweaks to the tentative agreement as a path to ratification.
Columbia’s bargaining team, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge the rejection of the tentative agreement and proceeded to ignore the new bargaining committee throughout the summer. Moreover, recognizing how important open bargaining was in the rejection of the contract, they insisted on resuming bargaining only if it was closed to the rank-and-file. Finally, Columbia retaliated by unilaterally changing the pay schedules of workers. Instead of paying instructional graduate student-workers their stipends in a lump-sum at the beginning of the semester, as they had in the past, Columbia announced that stipends would be paid semi-monthly with wages for teaching labor. The implication was clear—Columbia was intent on withholding both stipends and wages, amounting to nearly a thousand dollars every week, should we go on strike. In response, we filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against them. In response, we filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against them.
Workers did not back down, but with momentum from the No vote’s success, began to get more organized. When Columbia refused to let in rank-and-file members into the first bargaining session, our new BC followed the lead of membership and walked out of a session. Internally, members of CAWDU worked to maintain democratic interest and participation at every level. All contract articles were written in working groups with rank and file members, and all bargaining sessions were preceded by an open caucus where rank and file union members voted to approve any moves at the table. With the support of many new organizers, and after making space for fears, concerns, and challenges to be openly expressed, the more democratic and fighting union set a new strike deadline of November 3.
These reforms were critical to building militancy and keeping both the new BC committed to their base and workers committed to the strike. Indeed, as the strike began, BC members, despite their caucus affiliation, expressed concerns and doubts about the power of the strike, proposing strike end-dates and quid-pro-quo strategies of trading one demand for another. Such doubts were the natural outcome of being in a high-pressure position of negotiating with members of university management, who were experts at gaslighting and coercing bargaining committees to concede to the logic of the boss. Moreover, student workers faced increasing financial hardship as the strike continued and were anxious about a quick resolution. This led to heated disagreements about bargaining strategy and the future of the strike. Having active, mobilized workers within collective union spaces to debate and make decisions had a radical effect on the strike and forced the BC to not only hold the line, but reckon with the true power and strength of collective action.
Despite Columbia’s legal team’s insistence that they would not budge, the administration gave counterproposals a week into the strike. While far short of what strikers had hoped for, these early proposals showed that our efforts were working. In the fourth week of the strike, SWC entered mediation with Columbia’s administration. In sharp contrast to Spring 2021, the unit was polled on whether to accept mediation while continuing the strike. They accepted. The administration and SWC interviewed three candidates in meetings that were open to all members of the union. After agreeing to mediation, and having learned a hard lesson from the business union bureaucrats, ninety percent of strikers voted to continue: it was common sense that rather than mediation, the strike itself was the key source of our power.
When the boss retaliates, escalate
On December 1st, Columbia’s Human Resources office sent a notice to all student workers that a failure to return to work by December 10 would mean “the possibility” of not receiving appointments for the spring. In other words, only workers who crossed the picket line before December 10 would have guaranteed positions to return to. The threat terrified hundreds of striking workers, who were suddenly faced with the prospect of receiving no income in the spring. Moreover, striking student workers had already gone without any wages or stipend for a month since the beginning of the strike. Yet, Columbia had only offered minor concessions and retaliated in response.
As do so many striking workers, our union too reached a moment of deep uncertainty. The business unionists had avoided this tension by giving up before they started, but a fighting union takes risks to push for better working conditions. It was clear that if strikers backed down in that moment, we faced certain defeat. The strike would have concluded with no wins, giving credence to the union bureaucracy’s argument that strikes and collective action are ineffective. The Columbia administration’s new retaliatory actions would have been proven to work, providing employers across universities with new battle-tested strike-breaking tactics.
Despite our fear, it became obvious that Columbia was responding to the strength of the strike, which had surpassed all expectations. Moreover, the threat to replace us had begun to draw outrage from previously neutral parties, such as faculty. It was with this widening and deepening recognition of our power, and the conviction that we cannot give in to fear at such a critical juncture, that strikers collectively voted to continue the strike and mobilized to escalate.
Inspired by the University of California wildcat Cost of Living Adjustment strike, the SWC rank-and-file shut down campus on December 8th with a hard picket line. Workers from unions across the city, such as NewsGuild, Teamsters, DC37, NYU GSOC, and more, came out in support. With hundreds of people picketing all fourteen entrances of Columbia’s Morningside campus, the labor movement sent a clear signal to the administration—we will not stand for blatant union-busting and we will continue to escalate until Columbia withdraws their threat to replace workers and respond to the demands of the strike.
Within days, Columbia’s human resources team clarified that there would be no permanent replacement of striking workers. Department chairs, in support of SWC and against the administration’s plans, committed to ensuring that striking workers would be reappointed in the spring semester. The university was terrified of further escalation. All signs were clear – the balance of power had shifted, and it was only a matter of time before the strike would reach victory.
Indeed, by December 23, Columbia could no longer tolerate the strike. They provided a comprehensive package of proposals that gave the lowest-paid workers as much as thirty-three percent in raises, an expanded healthcare fund plus seventy-five percent premium coverage for comprehensive dental insurance, and access to arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment. We had won all our demands except for one outstanding issue—the full recognition of all workers in our union.
Staying on strike for the inclusion of fellow workers
Columbia had always contested the inclusion of hourly teaching and research workers in the union. As early as 2016, various members of Columbia management’s bargaining team had argued that these casual workers did not share a community of interest with those on salaried appointments. Despite these claims, the NLRB had explicitly named the titles of some hourly workers in the certification of the union.
At this moment, the package we received would have helped the majority of workers on strike. It was tempting for many to leave casual workers behind by backing out from the strike. Yet, after various hours-long discussions between bargaining sessions, hundreds of organizing and striking workers voted to focus the rest of our campaign on winning full recognition, that is, for the inclusion of casual hourly workers.
The decision was difficult for many workers eager to end the strike after seven weeks without receiving wages. Yet, strikers had also built a collective understanding that casual workers who fought and struck with us cannot be left behind at the end of this struggle. We knew that excluding workers of certain titles would create two tiers of workers, undermining labor power in the long-run as Columbia, like any employer, could move to reclassify workers to exclude them from the union.
Our decision to stay on strike baffled the administration, who framed this as the union “repeatedly moving goal posts,” even though recognition of these workers had been a priority from the very moment we petitioned the NLRB to form a union. As we had done before, workers organized. For us this meant hosting online recognition rallies to draw support from across the world, but our strategy can be generalized for all striking workers: we doubled down on the principles behind the fight in a way that deepened and broadened the activity of rank and file.
Indeed, with mounting pressure and the start of the spring semester around the corner, Columbia soon gave into our recognition demand on one condition—that the union give up our already-weak union security clause that allowed us to levy a small, unenforceable contribution to the student employee health fund on workers who did not pay their fair share of union fees or dues. The debate over the issue was fierce. Some rank-and-file workers argued that the pressure of this contribution would provide people an incentive to join the union and pay dues. For them, the path to power lay in developing majority membership through a card drive, collecting dues that providing both the local union and the larger UAW International with financial resources. However, this choice would have meant the exclusion of fellow workers from the unit altogether, including some who had gone on strike.
On the other hand, AWDU and its allies recognized that a weak union security provision is not a reliable path to union power. The best union security arrangement on the table was still a weak “agency shop” model that left many loopholes for workers to evade their fair-share contribution. More importantly though, dues and membership numbers, while important for union resources, do not determine the strength and militancy of the rank-and-file. Faced with the choice Columbia forced upon us, it was clear that dropping the recognition demand, in contrast, would weaken the solidarity of the rank-and-file as it betrayed workers who had struck for their inclusion in the union. At several open caucuses, workers voted to accept Columbia’s terms of dropping the union security provision to secure the NLRB scope of recognition for our union, which would include casual researchers and instructors.
Just as we democratically organized throughout this strike, we voted almost unanimously to end it. By the end, we had achieved a tentative agreement with thirty-three percent raises for the lowest-paid student-workers, six to ten percent raises for most other workers, seventy-five percent coverage of premiums for comprehensive dental insurance plans and an expanded healthcare fund, more than doubled childcare subsidies, access to arbitration for cases of discrimination and harassment, and full recognition of our union. Moreover, the university agreed to provide workers wages for making up work that was not done during the strike. Indeed, the balance of power had shifted. We had defeated our employer through militant collective action built through radical participatory democracy.
We were able to confront a union-busting administration and secure important gains for SWC’s membership. The No vote and the resulting victory have tremendous implications for other unions in New York and on campuses across the country. While our first contract was a resounding victory, there is still a lot of work that lies ahead. A contract alone is not a guarantee that the university will enforce it. Like many other unions, we are confronted with the question of whether, and how, the mechanisms of collective bargaining such as contract grievances can help us build a truly radical workers’ movement. As a recently recognized union, we also have to find ways to connect not only with other unions on campus and across the city, but also to build links with broader social struggles and movements for justice. We still need lasting, long-term organization to fight. This strike was only a first step towards building a democratic union that fights for all its workers.