A Labor Sympathizer, Now on the Management Side, Calls for ‘Mutual Realism’

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Their union says grad students will stop teaching and doing research until members successfully negotiate a labor contract with Columbia.
Image: Pj Huang, Columbia Spectator

By Vimal Patel

Graduate teaching and research assistants at Columbia University are headed toward a labor strike, as both sides have failed to agree on issues that include pay and access to a third-party arbitration process.

Columbia is the nerve center of the graduate-student unionization movement. A legal battle that involved the university in 2016 gave teaching and research assistants at private colleges everywhere the legal right to collectively bargain. And in 2018, after activists said the university wasn’t negotiating a contract, hundreds walked out of classrooms and research labs for a week.

But this strike, planned to start on Monday, comes at an especially sensitive moment, amid a pandemic and a time university leaders call “one of the most stressful” in Columbia’s history.

And there’s a twist: Ira I. Katznelson, a political scientist and historian who described himself in a letter to the campus as having “longstanding connections to the labor movement, including a history of work with the United Auto Workers some years back on the side of political strategy,” now finds himself, as interim provost, on the management side of the bargaining table. The dynamic has rankled critics, who level charges of hypocrisy.

Katznelson — the author of influential books including Marx and the CityWhen Affirmative Action Was White, and The Politics of Power — says what’s needed in the Columbia labor dispute is “good will,” “considered solutions,” and “mutual realism.”

“This is especially so during the pandemic, which has placed Columbia, and higher education more generally, under great fiscal strain, with responses that have included wage and hiring freezes,” he wrote in his campus letter this week. “Regarding compensation, there are lines we are unable to cross. Current demands set forth as recently as Monday of last week for increases of 10 percent and subsequent 6-percent annual improvements, simply put, are neither reasonable nor responsible in present circumstances.”

Katznelson declined an interview request from The Chronicle, stating in an email that, “at the moment, what matters is that the union and the university conclude a successful agreement, which I am confident can be accomplished without a strike.”

In his message to campus, Katznelson noted an agreement that was reached with postdoctoral researchers over the summer, significantly raising pay following a study that showed postdocs at Columbia were compensated below market rates, “thus putting us in a zone that was less than fully competitive, and which we sought to remedy.” The minimum pay for postdocs is now $60,000 a year.

“By contrast,” he wrote, “current graduate-student stipends in comparison to our peers are at the high end, and we are proud of that position. In other words with regard to compensation we are at a different starting point in the current negotiation than we were with the postdocs.”

That doesn’t sway Columbia activists. While no comparable data exists about graduate-student pay, a standard nine-month stipend of $31,000 does, in fact, make graduate students at Columbia among the better compensated teaching and research assistants. But activists note that the comparison doesn’t account for living in the most expensive city in the country.

Sam Stella, a third-year Ph.D. student in the religion department, has a toddler and a partner who was laid off from her nonprofit during the pandemic. Stella said he can’t afford dental care, and his 3-year-old has never been to the dentist. He took out loans to finance his education and doesn’t have savings he could draw from. But he considers himself luckier than many of his peers.

“The message Columbia is sending is, this program is not actually for you,” he said, “It’s telling me that the people who are supposed to be the next generation of scholars in this country are people who are even more privileged than me, who have independent wealth, who can do this as a leisure pursuit, frankly.”

Stella said he found Katznelson’s email invoking his own work with the UAW upsetting.

“It very much feels like going to the doctor and saying it hurts when I do this. Well, the answer is, then don’t do that,” Stella said. “It feels manipulative and, frankly, patronizing, to make this about his personal struggle, or the difficulty and the pain that he experiences union busting as a labor historian. That’s not our problem. That’s something he needs to deal with on his own.”

Vimal Patel covers student life, social mobility, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.

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