A nationwide wave of worker protests now includes graduate students at Columbia University. Hundreds announced on Friday that they were going on strike; for some, it’s their second in two years. This time around, there will be no picket line, no conspicuous absences in the lecture halls. Students will stop writing, researching, and grading from home. And they aren’t just withholding their labor — many of them have decided to withhold rent, too.
Both the labor and rent strikes involve hundreds of students in over 20 departments. Many, though not all, are members of the Graduate Student Union, which is represented by the United Auto Workers. Combined, the actions threaten Columbia’s image of itself, or at least the image it presented to the National Labor Relations Board. The university refused to recognize the union for years, even after a court ruled in 2016 that the students had a legal right to organize. Students aren’t workers but scholars, it told the NLRB; as Columbia viewed it, the two states exclude one another. Columbia only agreed to bargain with students in 2018, in the aftermath of a weeklong strike.
But difficulties in the bargaining process had already pushed the union to the brink of another strike, said Danielle Carr, a student organizer. “Columbia has really not shifted at all or offered meaningful concessions in the past year of bargaining,” she told Intelligencer. 96 percent of the union’s membership voted to authorize a strike in March; a no-strike clause in the union’s bargaining framework with Columbia expired in early April.
As the pandemic transformed campus life, she added, “there was some uncertainty” about a strike. But Columbia’s handling of the pandemic infuriated students, and today’s work stoppage is now focused principally on the COVID-related concerns of members, not on older disputes. “The decisive moment for us came when Columbia announced, in opposition to literally hundreds and hundreds of people who had signed a petition, that they were not going to cancel rent for people in university housing, even though they had canceled rent for their commercial tenants,” she said.
COVID, then, has heightened an older conflict between students and Columbia. The university has relied on its academic character to resist unionization for years. But for students, the university is a totalizing force in their lives: It is boss and landlord too, a source of enrichment as well as exploitation.
“The fact of the matter is that many of us face the university in two capacities, as tenants and as workers,” said Carr, a doctoral candidate in anthropology. “And it’s a lot like the company-town system, where workers pay portions of their paycheck back to the university for the essential goods that they need to live.”
Columbia is one of the largest landowners in New York City, and its rent practices can affect hundreds if not thousands of students and businesses alike. Though the university offered two months’ free rent to small businesses in its commercial properties, it made no such allowances for students who live in university-owned housing. As graduate students lose part-time jobs, research grants, and other sources of income due to the pandemic, many now find themselves unable to pay for their housing. Almost 80 percent of graduate students who responded to a survey organized by the Columbia People’s Coronavirus Response, a student-led campaign, said that they would struggle to pay rent over the next six months. They’re demanding rent cancellation in university housing along with lease extensions and an eviction moratorium.
Lexie Cook, who is participating in the rent strike, told Intelligencer that rent has long been a problem for students in university housing. In the summer, she explained, Columbia charges many students in rent approximately what it pays them to research and teach for the first five years of their programs. “Then students essentially have no money for post-rent expenses, which according to a conservative estimation of what it costs to live in New York, would put them at about a $2,000 deficit,” she explained. After the fifth year of their programs, graduate students have no guarantee that they will receive any university funding at all, which means they may be entirely on the hook for their expenses.
“Even when you do get a summer scholarship, and this isn’t universal, it depends on the program and the department, but oftentimes it’s not enough to pay summer rent if you were to stay in New York,” said a graduate student who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Rent for his bedroom in a university-owned apartment is $1,400 a month. “A lot of us sublet every summer so that we can pay the rent that we pay to Columbia,” he added. But due to a new COVID-era policy, Columbia restricts sublets to individuals affiliated with the university, and since summer programs are canceled, students who would otherwise rely on sublets to make rent are left in the lurch.
In an email to Intelligencer, Columbia spokesman Scott Schell said that the university doesn’t view its rent cancellation for commercial tenants as being “in tension with or any sort of tradeoff with the support provided to our students.” Ph.D. candidates may also be eligible for a stipend enhancement, he added. Students on nine-month appointments — which includes most doctoral candidates in the humanities and social sciences — can receive two disbursements of $1,500 each, which can be applied to rent or other expenses.
But Cook said that isn’t sufficient. “If you are a 6 or 7 year student with no summer funding, the best scenario [is that] $3000 will cover two months of your rent, based on the average Columbia rent according to our survey,” she said by text.
Though the circumstances of the student strike are unique to academia, students see themselves as participants in a struggle that extends far beyond Columbia’s campus. Other tenants’ rights groups with no connection to Columbia have announced rent strikes on May 1, the same day the Columbia rent stoppage is scheduled to begin. “We’re doing this in solidarity with literally millions of people across the nation and in New York,” Carr said.
This piece has been updated to correct the timing of the strike authorization vote and to clarify Columbia’s subletting policy.