Student Workers of Columbia Are Running the Biggest Ongoing U.S. Labor Strike

Teen Vogue speaks to student workers at Columbia about what's at stake.

The biggest open-ended strike in America is happening at Columbia University in New York City. As of November 18, following the ratification of the John Deere union contract the night before, the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC)-UAW Local 2110 unit of 3,600 student workers is now the largest striking body in the country. Their strike, the second they’ve launched in 2021, initially began on November 3, and entered into mediation with the university on Monday.

After an October so flooded with union activism the media christened it “Striketober,” student workers at Columbia are continuing the rush of labor organizing. Teen Vogue speaks to three Columbia graduate and undergraduate student workers about how they got involved in the union and what’s at stake for them, students across the country, and workers.

“We are parents and caretakers. We are debt-burdened. We have bodies and teeth that require medical attention, leaving us with bills we cannot pay, or unwilling to seek the care we need," Lexie Cook, a Ph.D. student and student worker at Columbia, tells Teen Vogue. “We cannot afford to live in New York. We cannot afford to live in fear of abusive advisors and superiors.” 


“But it’s not just what’s at stake for us,” Cook continues. "We are far better off than many of our fellow student workers at other universities. If we cannot secure a living wage and decent health care from a university as monstrously rich as Columbia, what kind of precedent does that set for them?”


Teen Vogue: Please share a bit about yourself and why and how you got involved with this organizing effort.


Tamara Ailin Hache: I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. student worker at the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. This means I have research responsibilities and teaching responsibilities. Regarding my teaching, I’m an instructor of record, which means I do all the work by myself: I plan my classes; I teach twice a week; I hold office hours and answer emails; I prepare all the assignments and grade all the assignments; I even design the syllabus from scratch. So it's a lot of work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love teaching so much! Nothing makes me happier. It’s the reason I chose to pursue my Ph.D. here at Columbia University — their teaching program. I knew that’s what I wanted. But what I didn’t know is that coming to Columbia, a very, very rich Ivy League, would result in me and my colleagues having to endure such precarious working conditions.

Becca Roskill: I’m an undergrad course assistant in computer science and a member of the Student Workers of Columbia Bargaining Committee. I’ve been involved in student worker organizing since I started TA'ing. I have seen firsthand how important student labor is to teaching and research at Columbia, and I believe the university has an obligation to provide fair compensation and safe and healthy working conditions for its student workers in return.

Lexie Cook: I'm a Ph.D. student worker in my seventh and final year in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures department. I've been organizing with the union since I arrived in 2015.

I first came to Columbia as an undergrad in 2008, naively hoping to find myself in a hotbed of radical politics. Instead, I was confronted with the hypocrisy of a billionaire university whose priorities had clearly taken a detour from education and societal betterment long ago (if that was ever even on the agenda).

I saw joining the union as not only a necessary avenue to secure a living wage and basic protections for myself and fellow student workers, but as part of a larger effort to push the university to do right by all its workers, and to lobby for more democratic decision-making within the institution.

TV: What's at stake for you and your colleagues?

TAH: I'm an international student, which means Columbia is basically my only safety net: My visa depends on them, they're my employer, they're even my landlord. And with a $14.3 billion endowment, student workers still don’t have a fair wage (not even a living wage!). We still don’t have neutral arbitration for cases of harassment and discrimination. We still don’t have comprehensive health care. We still have no recognition as workers.

Columbia has been putting profit over people for far too long. Our living conditions are at stake. If I can't pay my rent, Columbia will place a hold on my account. This means that I could potentially lose my full-time student status, which would directly impact my visa status and my access to health care. The administration has normalized this extreme precariousness. We need a fair contract now to ensure the working and living conditions we need and deserve.

BR: Our strike has [stayed strong] because workers in our union know what’s at stake in this fight for student workers at Columbia, for the higher ed labor movement, and for workers everywhere who are fighting for what they deserve from the wealthy institutions that exploit them. We deserve more than effective pay cuts; we know we aren’t protected from harassment and discrimination as long as Columbia is only checked by it’s own internal processes; and we know the dangers of letting the university carve huge swaths of student workers (performing the same kind of labor) out of our union.

TV: What do you want readers to know about your strike?

TAH: I would like everyone to know that organizing for this strike has shown me the amazing networks of care and love that can be built with fellow student workers. We have our union to advocate for us. We have our students, whose relentless support has brought us here and from whom we learn so much every day. We have each other to fight for what we know is right. And we're here for each other. We’re here for all international graduate instructors. We’re here for all graduate instructors who are parents. We’re here for all of us who have faced harassment or discrimination. We’re here for our students, because our working conditions are their learning conditions.

LC: In the seven years I've been at Columbia, our union alone has gone on strike four times, all with the aim of securing a strong contract. I've also seen and participated in rent and tuition strikes, increasingly since the University began using the pandemic as a pretext to impose a program of austerity measures that left a number of my friends and colleagues jobless and unable to finish their degrees.


In response to this, Columbia has recently adopted the line that we are strike zealots, that we just love to strike and will strike regardless of what concessions they make. This could not be further from the truth. Striking is hard. It puts tremendous financial pressure and stress on our members in a time when people are already stretched extremely thin. It can strain relationships with our advisors, colleagues, students, and families. We are here striking, once again, because this is what it takes to win against an adversary like Columbia.

BR: It’s true that teaching and research this semester are encountering major disruption on account of the strike. Many assignments are going ungraded, many recitations and office hours are not occurring, and many labs are not getting the deliveries they need because drivers will not cross the picket line. But so many students at Columbia stand with the student workers on strike, whether it’s their own instructor or a stranger on the picket line. So much of the community is able to see the bigger picture.

We feel the absence of our instructors and TA's, but it’s abundantly clear that the disruption is a direct result of Columbia failing to give student workers what they need to be successful in their teaching and research.