A successful 10-week strike by Student Workers of Columbia displayed the power of an insurgent rank-and-file.
SINCE THE 1970s, WORKER participation in labour unions in the United States has been in serious decline. In 1954, a high of over 28% of all US workers were part of a union, including over 35% of workers in the private sector. By 2019, however, union membership hit its lowest point ever, with only 10.3% of all workers and 6.3% of private-sector workers.
The decline can be attributed to a number of factors, most prominently worldwide economic liberalisation, the widespread decline in US manufacturing, as well as an all-out assault by the political establishment, beginning with President Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controller strike in 1981.
However a key factor, often remaining unacknowledged, is the manner in which business unionism has dominated labour for over half a century.
Business unionism is the idea that workers and bosses have common interests: keeping workers working, productivity high and profits flowing. It is exemplified by an entrenched union bureaucracy that treats the union organisation as a service organisation for its members: a professional entity driven by paid union staff that manage union membership in a top-down fashion.
This approach to unionism has meant that regular members are discouraged from union participation, leading to weaker symbolic strikes and to closed-door deals with the bosses. The result: US unions were unable to withstand the onslaught of neoliberalism as jobs were casualised and wages declined.
The resurgent rank-and-file
However, beginning in 2018, regular workers – often referred to as the “rank-and-file” – became dissatisfied with their own union leadership and began to take matters into their own hands.
It kicked off first in West Virginia where over 20,000 teachers went on a wildcat strike unsanctioned by their own union. Though West Virginia is also a state where it is illegal for many public workers, including teachers, to go on strike, the rank-and-file didn’t care; they were fed up. They organised one of the most successful strikes in decades, forcing the state legislature to cave to their demands.
This was the beginning of a resurgence of strikes and labour organising across the country, including powerful teacher’s strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as student-worker organising on university campuses across the country.
At Columbia University, where I am currently doing my PhD, student-workers have been working as volunteers since 2014, organising to form our own union local, Student Workers of Columbia (SWC). In the United States, locals are technically considered independent union structures that are empowered to run their own affairs. However, they usually affiliate to a national or international union structure, which then tends to centralise power and control in the hands of its bureaucracy. From the beginning, SWC chose to affiliate with the international union, United Auto Workers (UAW), which sent paid staff organisers to assist with the unionisation process.
With UAW’s assistance, we challenged Columbia University’s legal stance. They claimed we are not legitimate workers, only students doing “apprentice” work and, therefore, that we have no right to unionise. Employing the category “student-worker”, we rejected this feudal formulation, asserting that the university relies heavily on our labour as students who teach, grade and do research (i.e. work) for the university.
In a precedent-setting case, the National Labour Relations Board ruled in our favour, allowing student-workers at other private universities to follow suit. We then petitioned the NLRB for recognition with student-workers at Columbia voting overwhelmingly in favour of unionisation. Recognition through the NLRB allows us basic unionisation and strike protections, as well as recourse through the courts if the employer refuses to bargain with us.
UAW’s Administrative Caucus
Yet, throughout this organising drive, UAW’s dominant Administrative Caucus, which has controlled the union for decades, held a stranglehold over our local union, SWC. The only student-workers who were promoted as SWC leaders were those who were sympathetic towards their top-down leadership style, who saw unions as professional service organisations rather than political movements, and who were willing to take direction from the bureaucratic experts in UAW’s International Executive Board. Only “yes workers” were given access to membership lists and paid organising jobs.
When rank-and-file members raised concerns about this leadership clique, about lack of democracy and transparency within the union, we were subtly branded as radicals, out of touch with the “silent majority” of student-workers, and then sidelined from access to union resources and structures. Even our small rank-and-file caucus, which was able to elect three out of ten members of the bargaining committee, was easily coopted into the Administrative Caucus’ logic of governance in which members’ inherent conservatism and lack of involvement were continually blamed for the union’s weakness.
Rank-and-file workers needed a spark to help us gain back control of our union; in November 2018 the union bureaucracy provided us with just that.
Taking back our union
In November 2018, only a week before our strike to force Columbia to recognise our union and begin negotiations, UAW’s region 9A director concluded secret negotiations with university management that resulted in a Framework Agreement to begin bargaining. This signed away
our right to strike for over 17 months. Hundreds of members voiced outrage at a mass meeting provoking a “no vote” campaign to reject the agreement. This led to the formation of a new caucus, Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (CAWDU).
While we narrowly lost that vote and the framework was adopted, we used knowledge of the outrageous back-door dealings to activate membership, build our caucus, and push for the adoption of democratic reforms within our union.
The most important of these was our ratification, via membership referendum, of “open bargaining”, a rejection of closed-door contract negotiations and an embrace of fully transparent negotiations open to our entire membership.
Strategically, open bargaining allows us to apply significant pressure on management at the bargaining table, sometimes having over 300 of our members in the Zoom meeting room at a time.
Crucial, however, was what it helped us to achieve internally within our own union. During the tail end of contract negotiations in April 2021, our elected bargaining committee (under advisement from UAW staff) unilaterally suspended our second strike and entered into mediation with management. Rank-and-file members, who were attending bargaining by the hundreds, were furious. When the same bargaining committee began making huge concessions during mediation and agreed to an appalling tentative agreement with management, an all-out rebellion took place.
During open bargaining caucuses, members would shout down union leadership, organise their own unofficial membership polls, and call on the bargaining committee to resign. Open bargaining allowed regular members to agitate and build an insurgent wave that led to the historical voting down of the tentative agreement and the forced resignation of the entire bargaining committee.
The rank-and-file takeover
Over the summer, dozens of members joined a range of open working groups within SWC. We used this mobilisation to draft organisational by-laws that enshrined democratic, participatory unionism. Members elected, by a landslide, a new bargaining committee made up of CAWDU adherents; the new BC committed to taking direction from working groups and membership assemblies and worked openly to draft a new set of much stronger demands for the bargaining table.
Then, in November 2021, with Columbia stalling at the bargaining table, our unit voted once again to go on strike. This strike was different from the previous ones because rank-and-file workers displaced paid union staff in all aspects of organising the strike: from organising within departments, to managing meetings, to leading working groups, to union communications. The effect of this transformation was massive.
Our strike was larger, more resilient and more militant than anything Columbia campus had seen in decades. We flooded bargaining sessions with up to 300 angry strikers almost every day, we disrupted the President’s famous undergraduate class on “free speech”, and we completely shut down campus for an entire day with a massive hard picket line blocking all eight entrances.
Most importantly, unlike our previous strikes, this one had no end date: we were willing to strike for as long as it took to get a good contract. Columbia was not prepared for this. They thought we would get cold feet after a couple of weeks.
Yet when the dust settled, after 10 gruelling weeks on strike, including an end of the semester grading strike that threatened to derail the entire semester, the Columbia administration caved.
And we won
We won good increases of no less than 6% for all workers on appointment, up to 11% for workers on 9-month appointments and pay parity of up to a 45% increase for the most underpaid student workers in the School of Social Work. We won significant benefits including a new dental insurance program, a health fund, and a fund for parents. We also achieved our core demand for 3rd party neutral arbitration for cases of harassment and abuse. This was a key sticking point for an administration set on continuing to sweep complaints under the rug. And we won full recognition for all student-workers throughout the university, including undergraduate workers and those on casual appointments under 15 hours a week.
We made an unfortunate concession, dropping our demand that the university refuse campus access to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We also made a significant concession on union security, agreeing to an open shop where workers were permitted to retain the above benefits even if they refused to join the union or pay agency fees. Yet, we wagered, our contract was so strong and our union so well mobilised that we would be able to organise the majority of student-workers to pay their fair share voluntarily. This ability to retain membership is a significant test for the future strength of our union.
Most importantly, we have set a standard for academic unions across the country, leading to increased levels of organising and immediate wage increases in many universities, most notably a 25% increase in graduate worker stipends at Princeton University, which is seeking to avoid further labour unrest.
Internationalism and what this means for South Africa
Our union is an internationalist one at its core. Because of the make-up of Columbia’s student body, most of our members hail from outside the United States. Our strike drew on radical union traditions from France, Italy, Chile, Egypt and of course South Africa. Migrant student workers infused a bureaucratic UAW with a culture of transparency, horizontalism, and, most importantly, a social movement orientation, bringing together a wide range of allies. We won because we created a movement; and now, we must expand that movement to all workers on campus, to campaigns in support of BDS, anti-gentrification, and against climate change.
Exploited student-workers at universities in South Africa, take note. Seeking to suppress worker power, the university will call you “interns” or “apprentices”, as if the university doesn’t run off your labour. But now is the time to get together, organise among yourselves, and with other students and workers on campus. If you are committed to organising from below and building a radically inclusive and rank-and-file led union, the sky is the limit.
Workers in more traditional economic sectors should also take note. Student Workers of Columbia has drawn on traditions of social movement unionism that include the massive 1980s anti-apartheid worker mobilisations. In the same way, South African workers can seek out inspiration from current radical workers’ struggles across the globe. SWC’s insurgent strategy can offer key insights into how to democratise one’s union and displace a powerful bureaucracy that has grown all too cosy with the bosses and their government friends. But union transformation must begin with the realisation that every single worker can and must organise and lead their workplace. We cannot continue to rely on the so-called expertise of those within our own unions that seek to manage us. We must self-organise; we must be unmanageable.
Jared Sacks is a South African PhD candidate at the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies department at Columbia University. His current research concerns the shift in the South African “Left” post-1994 towards embracing the NGO structure as a tool for social change.