Columbia University: Birth of a Union

Lynn Geron

ON OCTOBER 17, 1985, after eight months of bargaining for their first contract, more than 600 Columbia University clerical workers represented by District 65-UAW went on strike. Six days later, they ratified a contract which provided substantial economic gains as well as significant language in the areas of affirmative action, sexual harassment, personal work, job classification and union security.

The strike, a culmination of five years of organizing, and its settlement were a clear victory for the 1,100-person, 80% female, 50% minority unit. It also demonstrated that women can be organized, Blacks and whites can work together not only for material gain but also to combat racism, and that strikes, led by the workers themselves, are still an effective weapon -even in the hands of service employees.

The strike did not shut down the university. What the clericals aimed to do-and succeeded in doing-was to disrupt the functioning of the university severely enough to force concessions from the administration.

Although salary and benefits were at issue, the strike was also about the right and ability of clerical workers to be represented by a union. It raised the issue of the rights of workers to exercise control over their own working conditions as well as the hiring and promotional policies affecting them.

Columbia University, despite its contracts with several unions, including maintenance and security workers, argued that clerical workers would not benefit from union representation. They promoted myths about the unique nature of clerical work and the personal relationship between supervisor and worker, saying that the presence of a “third party”-the union-engendered hostility between worker and management. The administration also warned workers about the lack of democracy. The union met the propaganda head­on. To a very large extent, the five-year organizing drive was led and staffed by Columbia University clericals ourselves. Far from being a “third party,” the union was-and wasn’t seen to be-the Columbia workers.

Using lunch hours to meet and evenings to do home calling, Columbia workers shared experiences, learning that, although each supervisor was different, each implemented the personnel and wage policies determined by the central administration. When workers from various offices got together, we found out that what went on in one office was very like what went on in another.

One of the things we discovered was that all over the university more whites were in higher grades than Blacks, despite their equal numbers within the clerical staff as a whole. In fact, racial composition reversed itself as the grades went up: at grade 3, 80% of the workers were nonwhite; at grade 9-the highest grade-only 20% were nonwhite. At each grade, white workers made more money than nonwhites.

Columbia portrayed District 65 as strike-happy. At first District 65 organizers-sent in by the central District 65 office to aid the drive-feared the potency of this image, and urged Columbia clericals to rely on legal tactics and petition drives to bring the union in and win a contract. District 65 spent four years in litigation at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), wrangling over the composition of the bargaining unit.

Columbia used the four years-eighteen months of it after the union had won the NLRB-ordered election-to cut medical benefits drastically and undermine government-regulated affirmative action procedures.

Throughout this period, District 65 headquarters counselled caution: go slow, rely on the NLRB, trust the lawyers, show you want the union and you won’t be forced to strike.

In November, 1984, aware that the university planned to cut benefits still further and that the Yale University clerical and technical workers were waging a strong strike, the attitude of District 65 seemed to change. ’65 organizers began to listen to the Columbia workers talk of preparing for a strike, and the union brought in organizers and rank-and-filers from other 65 shops-including from Boston University’s 65 units — to discuss how to prepare for, and win, a strike.

By January 1985 the campus was organized. Student support was apparent in the 3,000 student signatures on petitions calling for the university to recognize the union. Faculty support was reflected in the hundreds of classes scheduled to be taken off campus in the event of a strike. The presence of community, religious and political leaders at District 65 rallies, held on campus, indicated a high level of community support.

It remained only for us, who had set a late January strike date, to vote. But the university administration chose to negotiate an interim recognition agreement with the union, agreeing to accept the NLRB decision certifying the election. Negotiations on the contract began in March 1985. But the euphoria which followed the union’s initial victory was dissipated as the union negotiating team faced management’s team, led by a well-known anti-union lawyer.

The university refused to acknowledge the justness of issues raised by the union. When the union demonstrated that the university’s grading system appeared racist, and called for improved affirmative action procedures, the Vice President of Personnel baldly stated that minorities had neither the ambition nor the skills to advance.

In April the support staff circulated an open letter to the university. After getting more than 750 signatures, 500 clerical workers gathered, during a lunch hour, to present the letter to university president Michael Sovern. The open letter listed the union’s ‘bottom line” demands, including improved wages and benefits, job security and better affirmative action procedures. The open letter was then printed in poster format and became the wall decoration in offices across campus.

Over the summer, union organizers and activists met to plan for a strike in the early fall. We debated the merits of a strike at registration versus a strike some weeks into the term. We discussed how to make plain to the university that while we did not want to strike, there was a limit to the patience of union members. We discussed which tactics would most hurt the administration but least hurt members of the university community.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, negotiations continued and so did strike preparations. By early October we were more than ready. Columbia’s only response was to call for federal mediation, to which the District 65 local agreed. The mediator’s role was minimal until the night before the strike deadline. Then she urged the union to “stop the clock”-to send workers into work on the grounds that a settlement was in sight.

The negotiating team argued through the night over this proposal. Many of ’65’s leaders seemed ready to take the mediator at her word but rank-and-file members of the negotiating team felt that Columbia would not give in on any major issue unless a strike forced them into it.

The next morning a picket line over 1,000 strong formed before the Broadway gates of the university. District 65 members from the New York and New Jersey region showed their solidarity by joining in the picketing.

Later that morning Julie Kushner, a Vice-President of District 65, chief negotiator for the Columbia union and longtime Columbia organizer, presented the recommendation to stop the clock. More than one worker burst out laughing — thinking she was joking. Others rose to their feet and shouted their response: “NO CONTRACT, NO WORK.” The vote to stay out was more than 600 in favor of continuing, two opposed.

During the next five days, the union maintained round-the-clock picketing. Strikers, with the aid of ’65 staff, set up Earl Hall, an on-campus building, as our “oasis,” the center from which strike information, child care, food and entertainment were available.

Some pickets maintained decorous picket lines; others engaged in strike exercise or disco-picket; still others faced down nonunion truckers and prevented campus deliveries and garbage pickup. All of us gained a sense of our collective power as we, who had made the decision to strike, took actions which made the strike work.

By Monday the university had surrendered — not unequivocally or unconditionally, but with few enough conditions that Columbia workers could justly claim victory.

We know our victory was not won by our efforts alone-we owe much to the workers at Yale, who had shown that clericals could take a long strike. And we owe much to the Morningside Tenants Federation which marched alongside us, bringing their families to our rallies, and the students active in anti-apartheid and other struggles who returned the support we had given them in the spring. The Columbia administration had long feared a resurgence of the activism of the 1960s and saw the unity displayed during the strike a harbinger of that resurgence.

Four months into the contract, we know the resurgence is not quite at hand. The local, once so alive with creativity and spirit, has lost momentum.

The headquarters of District 65-less committed to rank-and-file union democracy than to adding dues-paying members to its rolls-has withdrawn some of its resources. Once again it is urging the local to go slow, take care, don’t fight for what will, after all, and become yours in the fullness of time. It is less than eager provide the training and education the local needs to continue the struggles to make our power a daily fact of Columbia life.

The local has not accepted abandonment of it to bureaucratic process and contract unionism without murmur. Activists in many areas of the campus are still struggling to exercise our power. The struggle now, as it was often even during the organizing campaign, is against the tendency within the union to accept Columbia’s methods and allow our militancy to be defused.

But in our current struggle the Columbia clericals now have a weapon we did not have before-we have the militant union forged during the strike. Out of the tremendously diverse body of the Columbia clerical workers, we welded a union of fighters. Now, we must use our strength on the new terrain.

March-April 1986, ATC 2

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