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Tensions Rise at Columbia as Strikers Fear Retaliation From University

Student workers on strike at Columbia formed picket lines that blocked off entrances to campus and prevented other students from getting to class. A giant inflatable fat cat waved in the breeze as dozens of drivers heading down Broadway honked their car horns in support. A 10-foot-banner reading “Fair Contract Now” was unfurled along an overpass on Amsterdam Avenue.

The scenes of protest dotting the campus on Wednesday came six weeks into a strike by the Student Workers of Columbia, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union with about 3,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The strike, which is being waged over higher pay, expanded health care and greater protections against harassment and discrimination, has embroiled the campus administration in a lengthy struggle with its own student body.

Wednesday’s action brought one of the largest turnouts since the strike began, as union members were joined by members of student worker unions and faculty from New York University, Fordham University and the City University of New York, and labor unions such as Teamsters Local 104.

“Today, I think, there’s a real show that we are the backbone of this university, and without us, the university doesn’t really function,” said Mandi Spishak-Thomas, a doctoral student at the School of Social Work and a member of the union’s bargaining committee.

The picket line came days after Dan Driscoll, the vice president of the university’s human resources department, sent an email to student workers saying that those who did not return to work by Friday were not guaranteed jobs next semester.

“Please note that striking student officers who return to work after December 10, 2021, will be appointed/assigned to suitable positions if available,” Mr. Driscoll said in the email.

The widely circulated email sparked outrage and accusations that the university was attempting to retaliate against strikers.

Scott Schell, a university spokesman, argued that its actions did not qualify as unfair labor practice. He cited the National Labor Relations Act, which says that while firing workers for going on strike is illegal and workers are entitled to get their jobs back after a strike ends, employers are allowed to replace those workers while the strike continues.

“In the face of enormously trying circumstances created by the strike, our first priority is the academic progress of our students, particularly undergraduates whose classes are being disrupted,” Mr. Schell said. “The message sent to explain spring appointments and teaching assignments was necessary to fulfill that commitment.”

Wilma B. Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the university seemed to be putting undue pressure on student workers by implying they were guaranteed to keep their jobs only if they were to quit striking now.

“To me, it’s a way of creating fear and doubt and coercing them, essentially, because of that fear and doubt, to abandon the strike,” Ms. Liebman said.

Several faculty members participating in Wednesday’s picket line said that the email had motivated them to join the union’s efforts. About 100 faculty members held their own protest on campus on Monday.

“That’s part of what I think is driving more faculty to come out,” said Susan Witte, a professor at the School of Social Work. “It was retaliatory, it was inappropriate and it was hugely disturbing.”

Ms. Witte added: “As a tenured faculty member, I think that protected employees have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of other employees.”

Local politicians such as Zohran Mamdani, a state assemblyman who represents parts of Queens, also showed up to support picketing union members. Mr. Mamdani said he had gotten messages almost daily from constituents who are graduate students at Columbia.

“These workers are putting everything they have on the line,” he said. “The fact that students are willing to forgo thousands of dollars in wages, the prospect of their future professional opportunities — it speaks to just how dire the situation is.”

In a joint letter to Lee C. Bollinger, the university’s president, Representatives Adriano Espaillat, Jerrold Nadler and Grace Meng, all New York Democrats, called on the university to bargain with union members in good faith. They also emphasized the importance of student workers for the university’s elite reputation and stability.

“As we work to recover from a global pandemic, it is vital that these lengthy negotiations conclude and yield a fair agreement,” they wrote.

Students said the strike had affected undergraduate core courses, particularly larger introductory ones that rely on graduate instructors for grading.

They said they were exasperated and nervous about getting incomplete grades, but they directed most of their irritation at the university.

Izel Pineda, a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in neuroscience, said she felt the university had not offered enough guidance on what would happen to undergraduates whose graduate instructors were striking.

She said she and her friends felt that the university was trying to use undergraduates’ frustration to pressure the union to end the strike, citing a campuswide email this week that linked to an anonymous opinion piece in the Columbia Daily Spectator, written by an undergraduate critical of the strike.

“Columbia has been leaving undergrads out to fend for themselves and mitigate the relationship between the strike and the undergrad class,” Ms. Pineda said.

Julia Hoyer, a Barnard sophomore majoring in history, said the conflict had marred the return to in-person learning.

“It’s been a hard adjustment to begin with,” she said. “But then, with the threat of incompletes because Columbia won’t pay their graduate students a living wage, it’s just unfair to everybody involved.”

The university and the union have been bargaining through a federal mediator for about two weeks. With the end of the semester rapidly approaching, both expressed eagerness to settle on a contract.

“We’re committed to working as hard as we can to reach a fair and equitable agreement as soon as possible to end the disruption to undergraduate studies and campus activity,” Mr. Schell said. “We welcome the union’s willingness to work towards a compromise.”

The union, for its part, proposed a new contract Tuesday that members said contained significant concessions.

“We do want a contract as quick as possible, but we need one that actually gives us the reasonable package that our union has been fighting for,” said Jackson Miller, a doctoral student in material science and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “We’ll continue to fight until our demands are met.”

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