‘At every level of our education system, and at every school in New York City, educators and school workers must be guaranteed a fair wage and decent working conditions.’

Adi Talwar

Tisch School of the Arts, where learning went remote in March in response to coronavirus.

There’s a strike wave in New York City. If you’ve visited my alma mater, Columbia University, where grad student workers were on strike continuously for three weeks starting March 15, you know this to be true. And if you’ve been walking through Lower Manhattan, at New York University, you surely must have heard about it — on April 9, 96 percent of grad student workers with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee UAW voted to go on strike by the end of the month if their demands aren’t met. 

I proudly support grad student workers’ right to strike. And I encourage all public school parents and advocates to do the same. At every level of our education system, and at every school in New York City, educators and school workers must be guaranteed a fair wage and decent working conditions. I’m heartened by the courage of the workers at Columbia and NYU, as well as the unionized City University of New York workers, who are fighting for critical funding and fair treatment. Every student, parent, educator, and school worker in the City will benefit from their recent efforts.

I’ll start with my alma mater: If you visit Columbia University’s undergraduate admissions website, you will find a “by the numbers” page touting everything from the school’s individual NCAA Championship titles (58) to the array of Broadway theaters in New York City (40).

Numbers of greater concern to those on the picket line are conspicuously missing from the page, such as the size of Columbia’s endowment: $11.3 billion. Or the annual salary earned by Lee Bollinger, the best-compensated president in the Ivy League: $4.6 million. Or the pittance paid to the graduate students who do a huge chunk of the actual undergrad teaching: approximately $35,000 per year, which is nearly $10,000 less than the amount considered a living wage in New York City and almost half what a single undergraduate pays per year to attend.

That helps explain the most important number of all, the percentage of these employees who voted in March to authorize a strike in order to force Columbia to the bargaining table: 96 percent.

Think about it: Even as many graduate students are still paying off their own exorbitant undergraduate loans, they return to academia to teach the next generation, only to find that the lavishly funded institutions they work for scarcely value their efforts. Some workers even say they find their immigration statuses jeopardized by late pay or low wages. Meanwhile, the institutions they work for pay their executives exorbitant salaries, sit on ballooning endowments, and tout their world-class teaching to induce the next crop of incoming freshmen to take out loans of their own. 

The Columbia grad student strike was preceded by a tuition strike by several thousand undergrads at Columbia and Barnard College, who struck in January demanding a reduction in tuition and a tuition freeze, in part because students are receiving a truncated pandemic education. As of earlier this month, both of these strikes are on pause — although the student-workers of Columbia’s Department of Religion remain on strike — and the sides appear poised to enter outside mediation. Whatever the outcome of this semester’s actions, I applaud the grad student workers and undergraduates who fought these fights, and I thank them for the example they have set.

I come to this struggle for education justice as a Columbia graduate (CC Class of ‘95), who went on to earn a master’s degree from the School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, a CUNY school. I’m also a former student in New York’s public school system, and a mom who’s spent years advocating for schools in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to get the funding they deserve. A Puerto Rican woman raised in East New York, Brooklyn, I understand the racist and classist legacies of our school system — from 3K through college and beyond. To me, this is a single fight for education justice. My fellow parents, education advocates, and public school workers should see it as their fight, too. 

The fight for a just New York City starts with valuing workers, from the women who sell churros on the R train platform, to the workers at Hunts Point, who distribute most of the city’s produce (and who, incidentally, were on strike earlier this year), to the grad students who educate our growing children. From PreK to graduate school, we know that our teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And so the fight for worker justice must extend beyond the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing New York’s public school educators. The fight for worker justice must live in our city’s universities, too.

Columbia grad students are not alone in their fight for healthcare and decent wages. Some graduate students at NYU, another expensive and well-funded institution, are expected to survive by working just a few hours a week. NYU grad students are not allowed to work over 20 hours a week, but many report being given significantly fewer — at a minimum rate of $20/hour. That means that students, at most, are making $400 a week, or $1,600 a month. The average rent in Manhattan, where the school is located, is $2,995, despite falling rent prices. In addition to demanding a living wage, free and expanded healthcare, and improved working conditions, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee is demanding that the university cut ties between the university and the NYPD and make the campus a safer place for undocumented immigrants. On April 9, an astounding 1,336 out of 1,386 union members voted to strike.

The Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty and staff at my other alma mater, CUNY, also has some wins to celebrate. After negotiating for an expansion of paid family leave for CUNY employees, PSC pressured lawmakers to back a set of bills called the New Deal for CUNY, which would raise funding for the CUNY system while making CUNY schools tuition-free, as they were from 1847 until 1976. PSC’s organizing ensured that none of the state budget cuts or tuition hikes Governor Cuomo proposed became law, and that the state would stop withholding the 20 percent of CUNY funding that it withheld last year. 

The New York grad student workers are organizing for isn’t only a better city for graduate students —it’s a better city for all students, for their families, for immigrants, for working people. What all these battles have in common is a dawning realization that New York’s institutions of higher learning—so essential to the city’s cultural vitality, as well as its economic strength —have some important lessons to learn. Among them: Their reputations, and their financial futures, depend on the passion and dedication of their grad students, adjunct faculty and staff, not just their presidents and tenured professors. These workers deserve better. We all do.

Alexa Avilés, a mother and organizer in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 38. 

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