Dear Columbia: Denying working students health care and a living wage is the real violence
On Wednesday, November 8, student workers at Columbia (UAW Local 2110) staged one of the largest pickets of their six-week strike demanding higher wages to meet the cost of living, neutral arbitration by a third party and comprehensive healthcare benefits. Workers from unions across New York City, such as CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC), NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the Teamsters and NewsGuild of New York presented to picket in solidarity with striking workers. They picketed various entrances, encouraging those trying to enter the university not to cross the picket line.
As a healthcare worker in New York, I attended the picket line to show my solidarity with the striking workers. The picket was quite peaceful, but yesterday Columbia Provost Mary C. Boyce sent a email to Columbia community members condemning the “violence” that occurred on Wednesday. This email is completely bogus. It is well within the rights of a worker to picket, including maintaining a picket line with their physical presence; however, there was not violent. The Columbia administration invokes this classic anti-union fairy tale because it feels threatened by the activation of its own workers and the growing demonstrations of solidarity by workers across the city. They see the strike gaining momentum and gaining support, so they must invent “violence” in an attempt to damage public support for the strike.
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A key point of the above statement is that there was no violence strikers — the violence came from the university itself, when the administration called the NYPD. In other words, a university that claims to care about ‘diversity’, ‘anti-racism’ and principles of social justice, has called the most racist and murderous gang in all of New York, the NYPD, to the picket line. yesterday’s strike. A university that claims to care about its BIPOC students and faculty has called members of an institution whose origins lie in slave patrols to a picket line manned by several of its BIPOC employees. This is not surprising, since the cops have always served as scabs and defenders of the private property of the wealthy, but calling the cops to a picket line is particularly hypocritical coming from a provost and an administration that claim to have such “concern” for “safety.” So, who was committing the violence yesterday?
A recent tweet from Columbia Art History PhD student Jordan Mayfield sums up the hypocrisy nicely:
In fact, multiple acts of violence were committed against picketers, as documented here. Apart from physical violence, multiple acts of verbal harassment were committed by workers and students trying to cross the line, physically pushing and elbowing picketers to cross the line. But has the Columbia administration mounted its trailing white horse of concern to condemn these acts? Of course not.
It is important to note that Columbia’s “violence” was not limited to yesterday. The university is denying the workers the health care they need and for which they are on strike. It’s violent. Healthcare workers like me see this violence every day in a system that puts the accumulation of profits ahead of people’s lives. Columbia perpetuates this same violence by denying student workers access to the coverage they need, while still demanding full-time study and graduate work commitments.
Columbia’s violence doesn’t stop there. Refusing to meet workers’ demands means that Columbia, one of the wealthiest educational institutions in the entire country, refuses to pay workers enough to simply live in the city. Columbia makes an active decision to deny working students a living wage. It’s violent. Columbia has even threatened to evict striking students who live in Columbia-owned housing. It’s violent. By failing to respond to student worker demands, Columbia is refusing to access neutral third-party arbitration, enabling the unchecked abuse and exploitation of student workers. It’s violent. Columbia even sent an email to the striking students on Thursday, December 2, threatening to permanently replace them if they did not return to work by December 10. Isn’t that violent?
As Left Voice and PSC-CUNY member Olivia Wood notes in the video below, “What’s violent is calling the cops on your own students and denying them health care. , while not paying them enough to afford the things they need. This causes violence on body and mind.
While Columbia wants to pretend to care about “violence” and everyone’s safety, it’s clear that the only thing they really care about is maintaining the exploitative status quo and not making a deal with workers on strike. The only violent actor here is Columbia itself. They fear that giving workers the deal they deserve will serve as an example to other workers, both inside and outside Colombia: workers who stand up together have the power not only to fight against abusive working conditions, but also against the economic system that does violence to us all.
Mike is an activist and doctor working in New York.