The much-discussed national crisis in American higher education hit me particularly hard this year. At William Paterson University, where I have taught for 13 years and am now a tenured Full Professor, I am in danger of being laid off, along with dozens of colleagues. My local union has managed to negotiate the number of job losses down by about ⅔ of what Administrators originally threatened, but it’s very likely that similar negotiations will occur next year. And the year after that. Meanwhile, AFT and AAUP National Leadership are calling for a New Deal for Higher Ed and fellow academic workers are organizing at both public and private institutions that face the same kind of “academic disaster capitalist” decisions–cutting programs and firing tenured faculty and full-time staff rather than chopping from the top.
At the same time, GWC-UAW Local 2110: the Union for Research and Teaching Assistants at Columbia University is about to enter the third week of a contract strike.
This post is about how the two fights are linked–both for me personally, and for the broader future of American universities.
I’ve written on the topic of grad employee organizing at Columbia in this space before: once rather playfully, and then again in 2015 when the current incarnation of GWC-UAW Local 2110 came onto the scene. From the beginning of the movement to organize grad employees at Columbia, now more than 20 years ago, the fight was about the future of higher education in this country. As one of my co-organizers, the American historian Kim Phillips-Fein wrote in a piece about the Columbia drive in 2004:
Underlying these bread-and-butter issues at Columbia are larger concerns about the transformations taking place within the culture and economy of academic institutions. Budgets for public universities have been cut back so sharply that some college students can’t even take the courses they need to graduate. Meanwhile, private universities obsessed with cost-cutting refuse to hire full faculty, instead employing semester-by-semester adjuncts, post-docs and lectures. The reason for the ‘job crisis’ in academia is not so much a shortage of a demand for our labor as it is the transformation of tenure-track jobs into contingent teaching positions, which do not permit scholarship or even pay health benefits. Graduate student unions are one part of a larger movement that seeks to strengthen the collective weight of teachers and scholars in the academy…
By the time I attended my first union meeting at Columbia in 2000, Kim and several others had already chosen to affiliate our fledgling group with Local 2110 UAW, which also represents the Support Staff at Columbia (not to mention cultural and intellectual workers throughout NYC). They chose wisely. The UAW was leading the way in grad employee organizing, and the union’s progressive history and willingness to organize different types of workers within a single institution were key to both the ideological and tactical methods we wanted to use. We were interested in the collective power of organizing, and affiliating with a union that already had a history on campus meant we could create strong alliances, as we did in a one-day strike in 2002.
Local 2110’s President, Maida Rosenstein, had been a clerical worker at Columbia when she and her colleagues first organized the union, and she was just coming off a historic victory at NYU with GSOC-UAW—the first private university in the country to win a TA/RA Union. From the moment I began working with Maida and Local 2110, I learned that a union is only as strong as its membership, and how crucial it is for rank-and-file members to have a genuine voice and a role to play in their union. We learned that one-on-one organizing conversations are the best tactical method of bringing in new members and shoring up old ones because, ultimately, the union is about solidarity. We worked in pairs to train new organizers, and we hosted training workshops with experts who taught us the tried-and-true methods that worked in key moments like the sitdown strike of 1937. We learned to educate and agitate in those conversations, and we explained over and over again to our fellow TAs and RAs that the union would become what we made it. We learned that Columbia would publicly claim to be a liberal institution, while maintaining powerful ties with wealthy bankers, conservative politicians, and union-busting lawyers. Our members would need to feel invested in the union if we were going to sustain our fight against such a formidable adversary. Our solidarity and collective power were the only tools that could really bring about systemic change. Sure, salary increases and the protection of a contract were on the agenda as well, but ultimately we hoped to build a movement.
And we did. We laid the groundwork that could sustain such a long and difficult fight. We worked 15-hour days, long nights, and weekends collecting contact information for graduate employees, visiting them in their offices, answering questions, and encouraging them to sign union cards and get involved. Using grassroots organizing techniques, we conducted a union election in 2002 (which we’re confident we won, but Columbia took us to court so that the votes would never be counted). We maintained majority support with card-signing drives every single semester, and we developed strong leaders, many of whom went on to work in the labor movement and at the AFL-CIO. Personally, I completed the AFL-CIO’s intensive Organizing Institute, and worked grueling union elections for TAs, RAs, and Adjunct Faculty at multiple institutions. I organized rallies and events with hundreds of participants, walked the picket lines, hit the phones, and got on the bus.
I had officially graduated by January of 2001, but I was still a Teaching Assistant. Columbia informed me that I would be considered an Adjunct for the spring term, which meant they would take away my healthcare. I took a part-time job with the UAW, and that rapidly turned into a more-than-full-time job as a Temporary Organizer. Eventually, I became de facto lead organizer for the Columbia campaign. My job description didn’t change, but our International Rep for the UAW was called away to work at other campuses, and Maida had the task of maintaining all the shops in Local 2110, leaving me to supervise a 4-week strike of nearly 1,000 grad employees in the spring of 2004.
All that time, I was also on the academic job market. The toxicity of academic culture was so deeply ingrained in me that I was terrified to have my name associated with the union, even as I gained experience and my responsibilities increased. I made sure to ask others to speak at rallies, to give quotations to reporters, to appear in the images we circulated. I thought I would be blacklisted and never get a teaching position. Fellow art historians would ask me why I didn’t choose to adjunct or take a one-year gig if I couldn’t find a tenure-track position. I chose not to re-enter a system I felt was broken, but rather to stay and fight in whatever ways I could.
By the summer of 2004, we hadn’t managed to win recognition of our union, George W. Bush had been re-elected and his anti-union National Labor Relations Board had ruled that graduate employees at private institutions could no longer organize unions. The movement had to retreat, but Local 2110 and the UAW didn’t give up. At NYU, GSOC-UAW struck, and then continued using grassroots tactics to maintain majority support and pressure the Administration, when the law and persuasive arguments couldn’t get the job done. They successfully negotiated a new contract in 2013, after 8 long years, and they are currently fighting for their next contract.
In 2018, Columbia finally recognized the TA and RA union—GWC-UAW Local 2110. But, now, Union-Busting President Lee Bollinger (who just happened to arrive when we began organizing in the early 2000s…) is STILL resisting their first contract. At the same time, the Administration at my own university is threatening massive layoffs, even with the protections of a Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the pretense of a budget crisis accelerated by the pandemic, William Paterson’s senior administration is planning to fire teachers and workers rather than cut back on administrative costs or draw from reserves. The fight I’m in right now at WPU is the fruition of the fight I was in at Columbia 20 years ago: intellectual workers are workers, and all workers deserve a say in the terms and conditions of their employment. Faculty and academic workers need to stand together, stand up, and learn to organize from the experts. We can save American higher education if we stop believing that we can persuade administrators to do the right thing; we have to use our collective power. From teaching assistants to tenured full professors, we should ALL be supporting the GWC-UAW strike right now with everything we’ve got. Those brave young people are fighting for all of us, and for the future of higher education in this country. To quote one of my favorite chants: THIS is what democracy looks like.