In April 2018, Columbia University commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the massive 1968 campus demonstrations with a star-studded panel. As University Provost John Coatsworth entered for his opening address, graduate students in the audience rose to sing “Solidarity Forever”—paying homage to the radicalism of the student occupiers of the 1960s and to their own struggle, as laborers, with Coatsworth and the administration he represents.
The singing is part of a much larger unionization drive that erupted at Columbia and across the country after the 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that graduate teaching and research assistants at private universities are eligible for unionization. Unions are crucial for protecting graduate students, like myself, who labor without a contract and whose basic benefits, like health and dental insurance, can be (and have been) altered or dropped on a whim. They also offer the only meaningful recourse available to many graduate students who face sexual assault or harassment in their workplaces.
All labor is precarious, of course, but graduate students deal with a particular sort of precarity. Academia is an insular world, and one in which personal connections carry disproportionate weight. A student’s job prospects after completing a doctorate depend upon sealed letters from established faculty, a fact that big names can exploit to coerce more labor, more deference, or worse from the students underneath them. And just as resisting a professor’s advances may have devastating career effects, so too can reporting them. The way prominent feminist theorists raced to defend NYU professor Avital Ronell when one of her graduate students accused her of harassment indicates just how deeply these personal connections run.
The Ronell case reveals that the power imbalances that manifest through harassment need not always reinforce gendered power dynamics, although often they do. The graduate student-professor relationship is a site of reproduction for the power dynamics that play out in a capitalist society writ large. One particularly disturbing example occurred within my own department, where for more than thirty years William Harris nurtured a habit of preying on the young graduate women he was supposed to be mentoring. Harris was forced into retirement in early 2018, but controversy returned to campus the following semester, when another prominent member of the university community, this time a dean, was outed for using financial aid as leverage to coerce sex from an undergraduate. In addition to the economic power that faculty can wield over students, the patriarchal expectation of access to women’s bodies also affects these relationships. In 2014, a startling 64% of women in the physical sciences reported harassment or assault at a field site, the vast majority having experienced said abuse as a student or postdoc at the hands of a male superior. Departments as diverse as cognitive science, literature, and electrical engineering have seen prominent faculty revealed as abusers in recent years as well.
The policies that universities have in place to deal with sexual harassment and assault within graduate departments are wholly ineffectual, a state of affairs that the Department of Education’s newly relaxed Title IX guidelines will almost certainly exacerbate. Recent high profile cases have demonstrated that even in the face of damning evidence, university administrations protect abusive professors over the graduate workers they abuse.
Universities’ failures make it clear that students cannot rely on their schools to police themselves. On a basic level, unionization gives graduate workers the opportunity to bargain with their universities for explicit protections or to adjudicate complaints through the union itself. More than that, though, unionization builds worker power. Sexual violence in universities, as in capitalist society writ large, operates beyond the individual level and serves to maintain the precarity of the working class and particularly the submission of those marginalized by sexism, racism, and heteronormativity. In the short term, graduate unionization offers grad students the best hope of reclaiming some of their power and correcting for the rampant problem of assault and harassment within the academy. At schools from Harvard to Duke to the University of Washington, grad organizers have been at the forefront of the fight against sexual violence.
Nevertheless, unionization remains an uphill battle. Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, Yale, and a number of other schools have hired the same law firm as Columbia in order to subvert their graduate workers’ attempts to form unions. They join universities across the country that have spent tens of millions of dollars on legal challenges and union busting drives (in fact, the amount spent on anti-union campaigns far outstrips the value of the demands grad students make, revealing that university administrators recognize worker solidarity as a real threat to their power). Faced with successful union elections, many administrations have sought to drag out legal battles, likely in hopes that a Trump-appointed NLRB majority will overturn the 2016 decision and stymy graduate organizing at a national level. At Columbia, the administration spent nearly two years pursuing this strategy, until finally, in November 2018, it extended formal recognition to our graduate union, the GWC-UAW local 2110.
More than five years of union organizing, a week-long strike in spring 2018, and a planned indefinite teaching assistant strike for the end of the fall 2018 semester brought Columbia to the bargaining table. The bargaining framework deal the administration offered the GWC was controversial. In it, union recognition hinged upon our agreeing not to strike for 14 months after contract negotiations began. The framework also included ambiguous language on sexual violence, creating space for the GWC to “negotiate for additional procedures” in dealing with “sexual assault and harassment and other forms of discrimination,” so long as those procedures “do not…conflict with the University’s processes.”
When the offer was put to a membership vote, more than 40% of respondents, including myself, voted against it. Many of us would have rejected any deal that compromised worker power. The majority voted for the bargaining agreement, however, and we all recognize the massive victory that we have won in forcing the university to the table. Columbia’s graduate workers now look forward to winning a contract that includes fair pay, stable benefits, and protection from sexual exploitation—and I do believe that under the current framework, these goals are achievable. We continue to organize, and we continue to sing.
Photographs by Kellen Heniford.