Grad Students Strike For Basic Rights

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“The reason that they are so mad about us having a union doesn’t ultimately have that much to do with not wanting to pay us more. Partly because you see how much money they’re spending on union busting lawyers….they could easily meet our financial demands. It’s about them not wanting there to be another form of power within the university that isn’t at the whim of the administration.”

~ Carina Schorske

By Ruby Samuels
On Tuesday, around midday, graduate students marched up and down the college walk chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” After years of trying to get Columbia University to bargain with them, the TAs and RAs of Columbia, represented by the United Auto Workers union (GWC-UAW Local 2110), have gone on strike from April 24th to April 30th. Their demands are diverse, including better healthcare, childcare and sexual harassment policies. But for now, they just want their employers to come to table.

The university’s stated reason for not bargaining with the union is:

“The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly reversed itself on the issue of whether teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to unionize, depending on which political party controlled the Board.

We seek review by the federal courts to decide this still-unsettled question without regard to shifting political winds. Instead of striking, the GWC-UAW could instead take the action with the NLRB that is needed to bring this issue to the courts.”

It is true that the NLRB has been back and forth about whether or not a teaching assistant counts as a statutory worker. In 2004, the NLRB ruled in Brown University that teaching assistants are students rather than legally protected workers. However, in a 2016 case regarding Columbia University, the NLRB ruled that, “student assistants who perform work at the direction of their university for which they are compensated are statutory employees,” because “Statutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act [National Labor Relations Act] does not reach.” In other words, their status as students does not exclude them from being legally protected as workers.

The university’s suggestion that the union take their case to the federal court system before bargaining with their employer is ill advised. The union website’s FAQ page claims that the university’s refusal to bargain with them is unlawful. This is true. It is illegal to force an employer to recognize a union, and employers are not legally required to bargain with a union until it is recognized. However, if an employer does not voluntarily recognize the union, a union representative from the parent company can be elected for the workers through a secret ballot held by the NLRB. After such an election, the NLRB states:

“a union that receives a majority of the votes cast is certified as the employees’ bargaining representative and is entitled to be recognized by the employer as the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees in the unit. Failure to bargain with the union at this point is an unfair labor practice.”

Because the TAs and RAs of Columbia University voted overwhelmingly (1602- 623) in 2016 in favor of GWC-UAW as their union, the university is engaging in “unfair labor practice” by refusing to recognize and bargain with them.

Although students at Columbia University and several other institutions have tried to bargain with their employers through a union, the only private university to succeed is NYU. In 2001, NYU graduate students were the first to unionize, and they won increases in spidends and reductions in out-of-pocket healthcare costs. When the Brown University case prevented students from being able to unionize as workers, NYU did not renew the workers’ contracts, but in 2013, a unionization campaign succeeded. Those graduate students are now represented by the United Auto Workers, the same union that represents Columbia students. Again, in 2015, the students rallied on campus and succeeded in securing more benefits for the student workers of the union. Perhaps NYU sheds some hope for the Columbia students who will be rallying for the rest of this week.

A lot of the undergraduates who I’ve heard commenting on this week’s strike have expressed confusion over why graduate students need rights. There is a misconception that graduate students are less than statutory employees because they are students. To clear up some of that confusion, I interviewed a TA who has taught me, an articulate graduate student named Carina Schorske. Below is our conversation, during the first day of the strike.

What are some of your demands?
First and foremost, we demand that the Columbia administration recognize our union and sit down to bargain with us immediately. We want our work as teachers, researchers, and lab workers, to be recognized as work–just because we love what we do does not mean we can live on love alone.

It’s been sixteen months of delay tactics since our historic and overwhelming vote in favor of a union, and still Columbia hopes the NLRB’s ruling in our favor will be overturned by a Trump-appointed NLRB. It’s a cynical gamble for a university that markets itself as a community that protects and produces democracy and justice. Now we know that’s never been the real, whole history of how Columbia operates–as a real estate developer and colonial force in Harlem, as an exploitative employer, as a corporate investor. But the hypocrisy is still lip-smacking.

The most basic thing that we need is a fair stipend that rises at the same rate as our rent. Right now, we don’t really receive a living wage for New York City. For example, I make $30,000 a year and my rent is $1,500 in Columbia-subsidized housing. And our taxes aren’t taken out of our paychecks, so every spring we have to pay up to $5,000 in taxes. We don’t have sufficient benefits either. To get these glasses, I paid for the eye exam and glasses out of pocket. Last year, I had two cavities. It cost me $450 to have them filled. I’m ok, because I don’t have children and I come from a class background in which $30,000 is considered pretty comfortable and secure. But just because I know my situation is relatively secure compared to the low wage labor members of family have performed in New York City does not make it right. One medical emergency could take me under.

And then there’s the question of children. There is no supplement or support for graduate student workers with children over the age of 5. For those with children under the age of 5, there is a $2000 childcare stipend–available by application only. Obviously this is terrible for graduate student workers who already have children, but it’s also unfair for those of us who might consider having children. This has all sorts of implications, in terms of gender, class, and race, for who can imagine a PhD and a career in academia, and how we can imagine it.

The graduate student union tried to get the administration to start addressing sexual harassment. How big of an issue is that among graduate students?

It’s a serious issue. Because graduate students occupy an ambiguous space between trainee and colleague, there is ample opportunity to manipulate us on the road to professionalization. Advising relationships are very private, receive little oversight, and it is difficult to critique or push back against the behavior of professors with prestigious reputations. We depend on our advisors for letters of recommendation, job tips, and fellowships. All of the usual inequalities are exacerbated by a culture that glorifies masochism, individualism, and the idea that you have to make your own way.
Although I have not personally been harassed by a Columbia professor in my program, I have been sexually harassed by four different professors in my academic career, I know I’m not alone, and I have seen friends leave academia altogether when they could see no recourse or recompense for their experiences of harassment. The problem is totally pervasive and exists on a continuum with the problem of campus rape that undergraduates have brought to national attention.
How is NYU instructive for this strike?
I had a close relationship to one of the activists at the forefront of the graduate student worker movement at NYU, so I was able to learn about their tactics from up close. The first contract that NYU offered their grad student workers simply reiterated the working conditions they already had, but in the form of a contract. Some NYU organizers were satisfied with that because they understood their goal to be the recognition of the union. But other organizers had a bigger vision and pushed for more, and they succeeded in negotiating a social justice contract that raised wages for all university workers and dramatically improved resources for graduate student workers with children… they had a lot of wins.
Here at Columbia, we currently have no contract. Our rights and resources are determined unilaterally: whatever the administration wants, whenever they want. The power to bargain is itself desirable. But once we get to the bargaining stage, we can’t be complacent. We have to make sure that the contract is as radical as possible. The goal is to build power against the corporate university, in collaboration with all the other unions and forces of protest in our community.
You’re a fourth year, so you won’t benefit from this effort.
That’s right. Most of the people who have led this organizing effort will not reap the benefits, so that’s why it’s ridiculous for Columbia to represent us as spoiled, selfish brats–and of course not all of us come from privilege. Graduate school is not a tea party. But as far as the long game… well, that’s true for so many social justice struggles. Students have been trying to organize as workers at Columbia for decades, so even though we won’t get to see the benefits, we know that’s true of the generations before us. We’re in solidarity with the past, and we’re in solidarity with the future. We believe that they are both ours.
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I’m a Cis, White Girl and I Was Almost the Victim of A Hate Crime

 By Ruby Samuels

Two weeks ago, a bearded man with a long robe and a koran threatened me and my girlfriend with a switchblade. We were on a train coming home from an art house in Brooklyn and I had my arm around her. I guess my arm must have been pretty offensive because the man screamed, knife in hand, “I fucking hate lesbians and faggots! Hate them! One of these days, I’m gonna do something about it.”

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Post Commencement Stress Disorder

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By Ruby Samuels

For seniors like me, the end is near and so is the beginning.

The day that I graduated from elementary school, I remember feeling so accomplished, so much closer to being a writer or a full-time wild horse trainer or CIA agent or whatever else was on my mind at the time. I also remember, much more vividly, the crushing weight of realization that I would have to plod through 12 more years of schooling until that day of freedom, more years than I had been alive. 

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Journalism. For or Against?

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Jaime Kedrowski / Missourian

By Ruby Samuels

It was late afternoon, right in the middle of midterms and the red-eyed students in my sociology class were just getting into the topic of the day: mass media’s negative influence on social movements. We were not talking about “fake news,” Breitbart or Alex Jones radio. We were talking about the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the four other “corporate” media companies that we were informed have been purveyors of skewed information both nationally and internationally for over a century.  

As I sat back and listened to my fellow classmates, some of whom are social activists themselves, speak about the media as a rabid and biased generalized other, I was taken aback. They described unwelcome “swarms” of reporters descending on protests that they participated in. They spoke about how even the most openly liberal and anti-Trump reporters are empowering the president by shining a spotlight on his misdeeds. They spoke of how the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in American history, only reached front page news because it was all about Trump, the man whose name and hair gets people to read articles. Therefore, they said, protests that don’t explicitly resist the president are not covered. They spoke of how the widespread negative coverage of the antifa movement halts progress against white nationalism. Lastly, they said that journalists cover protests as though they are isolated events, which limits the information that readers can absorb about the political and social context that gave rise to the movement in the first place. usa-new-york-daca

A lot of the points that were made in class this week are valid, but I am still grappling with how journalists could be so mistrusted by college students in an era full of headlines that seem to be on their side (in opposition to the current administration). Media may be somewhat inherently  biased– after all, reporters are human beings too– and everyone should learn to be a critical consumer, but I’ve always thought that journalism was a noble and necessary part of democracy. How else can everyone else, who spend most of their waking hours working in their own fields, be made aware of the political, cultural and economic events that shape, however abstractly,the world they live in?

In class, we have also read about zines and citizen journalists with their own publications and distribution methods, who are openly biased and seek to inform the public of their cause. But we still need people whose whole job is to report the news, who are trained in a professional setting to research, report and write about events that their personal ideologies aren’t already tangled up in. Don’t we?

Yes, we have fantastic, well trained, full-time reporters like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Rachel Maddow, who take an activist approach to journalism. But we still need sources that ride the line between parties, that will be listened to by more than the liberals in the preacher’s choir, that can’t be called fake news so easily.

The book we were assigned to read for class that day is called “The Whole World is Watching,” named after the chant of anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The author, Tom Gitlin, mainly talks about just that– Vietnam protests and the way that major news organizations allied with the Johnson Administration’s pro-war agenda to frame the anti-war protesters as a bunch of riotous hippies. I never got the sense that Gitlin intended to convince his readers that media is the enemy. He just seems to have wanted readers to realize that whatever they read, it’s not the whole truth.

In any case, times have changed. Journalists are still part of an elite intellectual class, which they supply with one version of the truth. As Gitlin wrote: “Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve the political and economic elite definitions of reality” (pg. 12). But these days, at least, journalists also uncover stories that politicians and certain members of the elite would rather not be shared. Journalists, however, can’t take sides, even when covering injustice and the movements that hope to be the solution. As the New York Times wrote in May:

“The question is which approach is more effective — when The Times looks as if it has joined the resistance, or when it excavates facts without prejudice? In the legal system, it’s the difference between an investigator and a prosecutor….Some readers, alarmed over a Trump presidency, want the newsroom in full combat mode”

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I think that recent events show that journalists are not turning their cheek to social movements. Six reporters, for example, were charged with felonies and arrested (four of whom acted even after seeing the consequences faced by the first two) for covering inauguration day protests in January,  under the premise that they were violating a Washington D.C. law against rioting. Just a few weeks ago, reporters repeated again and again the date of the deadline for DACA recipients to renew their two-year period of legal status. And what about coverage of the protests that have nothing to do with president Trump?

I’m still left with questions about how to go about doing journalism in a way that maintains the reporter’s role as the white helmet in a war of words. How do journalists cover the news in a way that reveals the structural inequity that leads to protests while also revealing the truth of the other side? How do journalists remain truly unbiased, or reveal their biases without losing readers?  What I do know is the less  that social activists trust the press, the less free the press can be to uncover the stories that those activists  and everyone else need to know. 

The Fixers’ Collective: Pro Bono and Next Level DIY

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by Ruby Samuels

If you walk through the unmarked door and narrow stairs of Brooklyn Commons on the first Wednesday of any month, you will find at least one pro bono fixer waiting for New York’s broken objects to arrive.

This is the Fixers’ Collective, a group of hobbyists who fix and repurpose the objects  of everyday life. The group was founded in response to the Great Recession of 2008 by Tammy Pittman and David Mahfouda, enthusiasts who want to teach people how to fix things for themselves. Originally, the collective met in Proteus Gowanus, a now closed art space in Brooklyn, where it attracted fixers from the Maker movement and other subcultures organized around DIY and resource sharing agendas.

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Now, the Fixers’ Collective meets once a month at Brooklyn Commons, a “movement-building space” where the wifi password is “compost” and the groups who meet there are often Marxist. They also meet monthly at Hack Manhattan, a makerspace on 14th street.

On this particular Wednesday, the only fixer present is Vincent Lai, a grocer by day who hopes to monetize his handy hobby soon. Vincent embodies his passion for repurposed materials via his Harry Potter-esque glasses, which are held together with plastic that he melted himself. His expected partner for the night (a college professor by day, Project Runway tech engineer by night and pro bono fixer in the wee hours) cancelled last minute.

From 7 to 9 pm we watch Vincent take apart the broken computer we’ve brought in, leaning in to examine every aspect of the gutted machine as others walked awkwardly into the room holding defunct devices. With a mixture of obscure technological terminology and dad jokes, Vincent gives everyone a sense that their objects are safe in his hands.

IMG_3390When a disheveled woman comes in with an antique plant-shaped lamp that she purchased at a yard sale 20 years ago, everyone watches in fascination as he tinkers with it for a few minutes, screws in a new socket and bulb and turns it on to fill the room with circulating rainbow polka dots. “The disco bulb is our tester,” he says with a grin.

Although we brought in a laptop that really needed fixing, it seems as though most of the people visiting this Wednesday have come more out of curiosity than urgency.  One woman comes in with a super 8 camera that her parents found gathering dust in their garage; another man brought in an old light meant for an aquarium that he no longer uses.

Whatever the outcome for a device, being part of a late night fixing session is exciting. The idea that there are people out there who want to know how the things that we use every day work is hopeful. The fixers mission, as stated on their website, is to “increase material literacy in our community by fostering an ethic of creative caring toward the objects in our lives.”

With more creative caring comes more self-sufficiency, more art and less waste. Plus, who doesn’t want to meet someone whose face lights up when confronted with your broken computer?