Standing up to Columbia's union-bashing

Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9a, speaks to a rally of union workers outside Columbia University (Anastasia Kirtiklis)Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9a, speaks to a rally of union workers outside Columbia University (Anastasia Kirtiklis)

NEW YORK--The clerical workers union at Columbia University rallied March 7 to protest the school's demands for cuts to the workers' health care, pensions and tuition benefits, as well as the Orwellian demand that workers use a fingerprint scan to clock in and out of work, and that they wear uniforms denoting their position.

Columbia and its affiliates, Barnard College and Teachers College, are carrying out the same kind of attack on unions as for-profit companies like Verizon and Sotheby's. In fact, the union-busting chairman of the board of Sotheby's is Michael Sovern, the ex-president of Columbia who tried to crush the union in 1985. The workers--members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110--fought back and won, and that spirit is still alive and on display today.

Some 700 to 800 people attended the March 7 rally, including hundreds of members of Local 2110, as well as Columbia workers in UAW Local 241, 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East and the Transport Workers Union. Also on hand were officials from the Teamsters and the New York Central Labor Council, along with many undergraduate and graduate students.

On the east side of Broadway, the picket spanned from 116th to 119th Street, and our drums, trombones and chanting echoed off the enormous wall to Columbia's campus. Even more workers and students picketed outside of Barnard College--and their chants echoed back to us, too. The most popular chant of the day evoked the union's militant history: "No contract, no work!"

Sharon Walls, a member of UAW Local 2110 who works at Barnard, recounted part of that history, saying, "We had a long strike in 1996 to keep our health benefits. We don't want to have to fight that fight again, but we will if we have to."

After half an hour, we marched to a third picket a few blocks away outside Teachers College to hold a rally. Because the police and Columbia administration--whose head of security is the ex-commander of the NYPD's 26th Precinct--denied the union a sound permit, workers used the people's mic to air their grievances.

"They want to cut our pensions," said Michelle Hill, an academic secretary at Teachers College. "We live paycheck to paycheck, and without our pension plan, most of us would be destitute when we retired."

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THIS ISN'T just an economic attack on workers. It is a racist and sexist one, too: The vast majority of the clerical workers at these schools are women and people of color. In the early 1980s, when the clerical workers fought to unionize, the workforce was three-quarters women and two-thirds African American and Latino. Back then, the sexism and racism were more blatant. Whites and males received higher paychecks and promotions.

Nowadays, discrimination is less obvious--for instance, the demeaning demand that workers wear university-branded uniforms. The administration even has the gall to claim that this is for the good of students, who students allegedly can't tell who is a Columbia worker. It's clear that the uniforms and fingerprint scanning aren't for security or students' needs, but are forms of social control.

On the other hand, maybe Columbia President Lee Bollinger and the university trustees should wear Columbia-branded suits--since most of us never see them and would need help in identifying them. In fact, when trustees heard students knew they were meeting in Low Library this past week, they moved their meeting to an undisclosed location.

Columbia clerical workers need and deserve a raise. UAW Local 2110 members earn $44,000 a year on average--a modest amount in expensive New York City. Yet the school has proposed a zero increase in wages. In fact, Columbia is demanding an effective 6.13 percent wage cut when the increasing cost of workers' health care plans are taken into account.

The idea that Columbia University needs to cut workers' salaries in any way is absurd. Columbia is one of the richest schools in the country. It has an $8 billion endowment and pays Columbia President Lee Bollinger $1.7 million a year, along with renovating the president's mansion before he moved in, at a cost of $23 million.

But the most upsetting aspect of this wealth is Columbia's hypocrisy. Just last week, the administration trumpeted its success in raising another $5 billion for the latest phase of its continuing takeover and gentrification of Harlem.

Columbia's hotly contested plans to kick out businesses and residents for a new 17-acre campus depend heavily on the administration's job-creation promises. However, one look at Columbia's propaganda website and the facts reveal that the administration is lying through its teeth. The university's website says, "These jobs of the future would provide dependable health, educational and retirement benefits." Yet right now, it is exactly these health, educational and retirement benefits that the university wants to cut.

It's clear that the only way workers can make these benefits truly dependable is to do what they always have done--fighting against the administration's obsessive drive to maximize its wealth while ignoring the needs of workers, faculty, community and students.