Paging Grayson Kirk: Columbia Strike ’04, Grad Students Hike

The sun was shining on the morning of April 20 as about 30 striking Columbia graduate students drank coffee and ate bagels behind a blue police barricade outside the main campus gate on 116th Street and Broadway.

It was the second day of their strike. Some of the university’s regular faculty had moved their classes off-campus in solidarity with the strikers, but no one could say how many. With the exception of the low-key picket line, all signs pointed toward a typical late-semester morning bustle in Morningside Heights.

Some strikers sat on the ground banging unrhythmically on drums. Others wore makeshift signs. One, written in Italian, indicated that the fresh-faced young man wearing it was in sciopero , or on strike. It was a quaint gesture. As everyone well knew, this amiable morning get-together hardly resembled a strike on the Italian scale, and so the sign did nothing if not call attention to the mouse-that-roared quality of the situation.

Many wore stickers that said, “In unity there is strength. Local 2110 UAW.” This too was telling. Graduate students are far more likely to feel isolated and powerless than strong and unified. For all but a happy few, writing a dissertation is a slow, lonely slog toward an uncertain career. “Graduate school has a tendency to be a little isolating,” said Nellie Boucher, a bespectacled third-year graduate student writing a dissertation on British colonial history, who stood on the picket line wearing a sign that said “Historian on Strike.” “It’s important to show the administration we are a collectivity .” They are buoyed by the recent success of grad student unionization at New York University.

There are specific demands, none of them earthshaking: a cheaper rate for health care for their partners, a child-care benefit, a contract for each T.A. that spells out responsibilities and compensation, a guarantee that if course enrollments change they will be reassigned or compensated, and-almost touching in its modesty-a voice-mail box for each grad student.

But however Columbia does wrong by its teaching assistants, at a certain level it seems that the strikers are asking for something more nebulous-a way of assuaging the existential doubt that is the historical lot of the grad student but is arguably worse than ever in these days of diminished intellectual influence in the culture. That’s not likely to be delivered in the form of a union contract.

While it’s unclear how many Columbia grad students even support unionization or whether Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers is the key to settling their psychic unrest, the unionization drive had made one thing eminently clear: Graduate students at Columbia are an unhappy lot. They may be living the life of the mind, but they’re also living in New York on about $18,000 a year, teaching two courses a semester and writing dissertations. When they’re done, they face a bleak job market and the slim chance of finding a fulfilling tenure-track job in a city they want to live in. Unionization becomes a concrete way to take some control over lives that are not entirely in their own hands.

“I do think for a number of grad students, a lot of that union support does come with one eye on the academic labor market beyond their doctorate,” said Shannan Clark, a leading union organizer who’s finishing a history dissertation on the commercial culture and white-collar unions of the 1930′s and 40′s. Graduate students, he said, are “worried about being used as contingent temporary labor now,” and are aware there’s “a likelihood they’ll find themselves as another temporary casualized labor after they finish,” he said. In short, they fear they’ll “go from being an underpaid T.A. to being an underpaid adjunct.”

There are deeper trends afoot. “The real crisis in academic teaching is not what happens with graduate students, but with adjuncts,” said Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History and a frequent contributor to The Nation . While this is a trend nationwide, the Columbia administration argues that Columbia has not increased its reliance on graduate-student and adjunct teaching. By deadline the university was not, however, able to provide statistics.

Columbia claims it pays its graduate teaching assistants as much as comparable universities do-they earn $17,400 a year, in addition to receiving a tuition waiver and heavily subsidized housing in a neighborhood where market rents are sky-high. The university is holding fast to its position “that graduate teaching fellows and research assistants are students, not employees,” and that “teaching responsibilities are part of their academic training.”

“Part of the issue is the country hasn’t decided if a university is more like a business or more like a monastery,” said David Damrosch, the director of graduate studies in the English department. In some ways a university “prides itself on being as inefficient as possible, and loses money hand over fist,” he said. At the same time, it’s “co-ed and there’s lots of sex and sports going on, so it doesn’t really look like [a monastery],” he said. Mr. Damrosch said he was “agnostic” about the union, but was respecting the picket line by holding his Joyce seminar off-campus.

James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar in the English department, said he supported the strike. He said there was a simple test to see if the university really fostered a “mentoring structure” rather than a “labor relationship” between graduate students and their professors. “If we take in the same number of students as we place in jobs, then you can argue persuasively that’s part of grad-school training, part of a mentoring structure,” Mr. Shapiro said. “But if we’re taking in more students than we can place, to cover courses that are otherwise left uncovered, then that’s exploitation,” he said. “If you’re taking in 20 students and only placing 10, that means half of the students in that program are being exploited.”

Yes, but how is a department to know which 10 will go on to succeed? And some graduate students want teaching experience in order to help get better jobs. Does unionizing help make the university seem less like a business, or does it guarantee that there will be essentially no difference between graduate students and clerical workers?

Already, the question is about the human rapport between students and professors. Graduate students sometimes gripe that their relationship with their professors and advisors is more perfunctory and professional than one of true mentorship. “By unionizing, you formalize this relationship, you don’t rectify it, and you formalize it financially in the form of better pay, better benefits,” said David Ponet, who is completing a dissertation on multiculturalism and democracy in the political-science department. “It’s a student-teacher relationship, and now you’ll turn it into an employer-employee relationship.” At the same time, he said, “there’s no doubt that grad students are used as cheap labor and have no rights as labor. There’s no real system of accountability.”

Graduate students, for their part, are agonizing about where they stand. Some are completely on strike; others have decided not to join the union but to hold classes off-campus in solidarity. After feeling torn for days, on Tuesday morning, Mr. Ponet decided to go on strike. “Solidarity trumped my reservations,” he said. But later in the day he reported that he was torn again.

“The faculty, I think, generally feels caught in the middle here,” said one senior professor in the humanities who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his rapport with his colleagues and students. “Many faculty sympathize to some degree with the students’ complaint. If you ask faculty how many want to have a union of teaching assistants, I’d say rather few do.”

When Columbia graduate students took a union vote two years ago, Columbia appealed the decision to the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that graduate students are not employees. A spokeswoman for the NLRB said the appeal was still pending, along with ones from Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts and the State University of New York.

“We believe the majority voted for the union; we think that’s why the university is appealing,” said Maida Rosenheim, the president of Local 2110 of the UAW, whose 4,000 members include 850 of Columbia’s clerical workers, graduate students and adjuncts at NYU, and workers at the Museum of Modern Art, The Village Voice , the National Writers Union and HarperCollins.

In recent months, Local 2110 has been calling graduate students to sign union cards. Last month, after successfully renegotiating the contract for the Columbia clerical workers, Local 2110 gave the cards to State Senator and minority leader David Paterson, who served as a third party to review the cards. He found that 80 percent of them were in favor of a union, and wrote to Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, in late March, asking him to recognize the card count, Local 2110 said. The union refused to say how many grad students signed the union authorization cards.

This is the first big test for Mr. Bollinger, who became president in June 2003 and has vastly ambitious plans for expanding the Columbia campus north into Morningside Heights. Indeed, Local 2110 was shrewd in asking Mr. Paterson to review the cards. If Columbia wants to expand into Mr. Paterson’s Harlem district, the university will want to stay in his good graces.

Back on campus, the indefinite strike must compete for attention with all manner of spring activity. On the steps beneath Alma Mater on Monday afternoon, students in flip-flops chatted on cell phones as undergraduates took turns reading the names of Holocaust victims for Holocaust Remembrance Day. A group near the student center was step dancing. A spokeswoman for the university, Susan Brown, said the strike had caused “minimal disruption.” On the steps to Philosophy Hall on Monday afternoon, sari-clad theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was discussing the logistics of holding her class off-campus with Dermot Ryan, a leading union organizer and graduate student in English literature. “I support it,” Ms. Spivak said of the strike. But first things first. “One of these days, you know you have to come by,” Ms. Spivak told Mr. Ryan emphatically, “to talk about your dissertation!”