2021 Europeans in the USA

Labour of love 

I visited Columbia University during the fall semester of 2021. As chance would have it, this was the semester during which Columbia University’s student workers went on a 10-week strike which saw them win a range of improvements over previous working conditions

I visited Columbia University during the fall semester of 2021. As chance would have it, this was the semester during which Columbia University’s student workers went on a 10-week strike which saw them win a range of improvements over previous working conditions – including increased compensation, improvements to childcare and healthcare benefits, greater pay parity across schools and programmes (PhD students in the School of Social Work, for example, were reported to be among the lowest paid before the strike), recognition of all union members, and “full arbitration or mediation for claims of discrimination and harassment”. Full details are available on the union’s website.

It was their second strike this year, after a previous contract was voted down by union members in April. In August, Columbia University changed its system of stipend disbursements, from the earlier practice of paying out two-thirds of students’ annual pay in two large payments at the start of term, to monthly stipend payments. This is widely believed to have been a pre-emptive move aimed at making it harder for workers to strike, as it enables the university to effectively withhold all of striking student workers’ pay. The move drew additional criticism because the university had previously insisted that overall pay was composed of “stipends” and “wages”, with stipends being based on students’ status as students, rather than workers, and thus not within the scope of negotiations. Despite significant financial hardship, the Student Workers of Columbia went on strike again on November 3rd. Their demands included better remuneration to meet the cost of living in New York City; adequate child- and health-care benefits; full union recognition; and improved procedures for dealing with discrimination, harassment and toxic work environments. It was, at the time, the largest active strike in the United States, and followed other – shorter – recent strikes by graduate student workers at Harvard and NYU.

On December 2nd, the university sent out an e-mail stating that spring semester appointments would only be guaranteed to students who returned to work by December 10th; a threat which strikers argued was illegal, given they were striking to protest unfair labour practices. The students I spoke to told me that this threat largely backfired: while some undergraduate and Master’s students holding research or teaching assistantships (who are easier to replace than PhD candidates) felt compelled to cease striking, most strikers simply felt even more enraged, and faculty support of the strike increased. On December 8th, the student workers shut down the campus for a day. When the December 10th deadline arrived, another e-mail declared that the new deadline was now December 17th.

In early January the university and its student workers finally reached a tentative agreement, which ended the strike. The new contract seems to meet most key demands, at least in part – including the recognition of undergraduate and Master’s level student workers as union members, and the ability to access third party arbitration for discrimination and harassment claims, which stood out as particular sticking points.

The determination, perseverance and solidarity with which Columbia’s student workers fought for more liveable working conditions were remarkable. I struggle to imagine a similar movement being sustained at my home institution, although the financial struggles involved in completing a PhD are very similar. At the LSE, there are – broadly – three types of funding for doctorates: school-internal studentships, Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding, and external or institute-level funding. Historically, the School’s studentships were higher than those given out by research councils and lasted for four years, as opposed to only three; however, students on those scholarships were required to provide teaching or other departmental work at no additional compensation, while others could choose their part time workloads and be compensated accordingly.

In 2019, the ESRC’s scholarships were extended to a fourth year in recognition of the fact that the standard duration of a PhD in the UK is widely considered to be four years, and hardly any PhD student completes their doctorate in three. Moreover, while ESRC scholarships rise annually with inflation, LSE studentships have stood at £18,000 since their establishment in 2012, and are set to soon be overtaken by ESRC scholarships (£17,609 in 2021/22). In 2020, the teaching (and other work) component of the LSE’s studentships was thus abandoned.

In the UK, a standard working week is 37.5 hours, and the London living wage currently stands at £11.05, adding up to an annual living wage of £11.05 x 37.5 x 52 = £21,548, which comes to £18,314.80 take home per year – more than any stipend received by an LSE doctoral student. While we can derive additional income from teaching (and, since 2020, are all compensated for doing so), graduate teaching assistants regularly complain that the hourly rate of about £16 (exclusive of pro rata holiday pay) is often stretched rather thinly over a number of hours vastly exceeding that allocated for preparation and marking. There are exceptions: the economics department pays an additional £8 “market supplement” per hour, and non-contact hours are more generously allocated. We are no strangers to inequities between academic disciplines. More lucrative employment opportunities can also be sought out outside of academia, such as private sector consulting – for those of us, that is, whose fields of expertise open up such opportunities. For many, things do not improve much after graduation: postdoctoral positions typically are not only lower-paid than what a similarly skilled individual might earn in the private sector, but also too short-term to allow a researcher to, for instance, obtain a mortgage and buy a home. Despite being highly qualified and essential to the functioning of academia, junior researchers are expected to spend a significant chunk of their adulthood in financial precarity.

It is assumed that research and teaching are labours of love; that we are lucky to do what we love and will continue to do it as long as we are able to survive at all. Never mind the fact that this restricts entry into the hallowed halls of academia to those who have no families to support, or crushing student debt to service, or are able to fall back on a familial safety net, and excludes the voices and viewpoints of those who are less privileged. Doing what you love is wonderful. But the precarity and low remuneration junior academics are subjected to signals a lack of respect and appreciation which renders this love bittersweet, and for many, undoubtedly, kills it altogether.

A large part of undergraduate learning (for which universities collect ever increasing sums in tuition fees) takes place in small group seminars run by graduate teaching assistants; a doctoral thesis is supposed to contain novel, publishable academic research. If there ever was any doubt as to the importance of graduate student work, the disruption the Columbia strike caused to undergraduate teaching has demonstrated that universities cannot function without it. Perhaps the time has come for universities (some of which reap several hundred millions USD or GBP in profits every year from investments, tuition fees and research funding) to start paying their doctoral and junior researchers fairly for their work. Fervent and successful labour struggle was not what I expected to see on a visit to the United States – but I am glad I was here to witness it, and hope it is a harbinger of more change to come.

This article was written by Pia Andres on January 17, 2022

Pia Andres is an Austrian 2021-22 Fulbright Student Researcher to Columbia University. Pia is a PhD candidate in Environmental Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Originally from Austria, she has lived in the United Kingdom since the start of her undergraduate degree in Economics and Sociology at the University of Glasgow in 2013. Her work focuses on the role of industrial policy in facilitating the transition to a low carbon economy, and on how this transition can be made consistent with or even promote local economic and development objectives. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time in nature, with friends, or reading fiction.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.