“The Columbia administration always has the same attitude. They’re always anti-union, acting in the most anti-social, corporate way. There’s always been student support for workers at Columbia and that support is essential.”
—Professor Eric Foner, speaking at a Student Worker Solidarity rally for the
Faculty House restaurant workers
Ten months ago, when I eagerly tore open my acceptance letter from Columbia University, my mind conjured up images of protesting against bigoted city policies such as stop-and-frisk or mass incarceration in the spirit of the school’s activist tradition. A naïve newcomer, I had no idea that restaurant workers at Columbia were being blatently exploited on campus at that very moment.
Columbia University prides itself as the premier “progressive Ivy.” During orientation week, we attended numerous tightly scripted programs that promoted uplifting themes such as diversity and tolerance. We sat together, listening to our president, Lee Bollinger, renowned for defending affirmative action in front of the Supreme Court. While we sat in our seats, reveling in our feel-good kumbaya circle, the workers at Columbia’s Faculty House restaurant were sitting across the bargaining table, gaping at the jaw-dropping comments and callous “offers” coming from the administration.
As Juan Aquino, a twenty-five-year veteran server, recalled, “When they look across the table, all they see is a bunch of immigrants. They hear our accents and act as if we think with an accent.” In fact, many workers present at the bargaining table have complained about Columbia’s lead negotiator, Sheila Garvey, who reportedly hissed in negotiations, “We’re not paying you to sit around in the DR [Dominican Republic] over summer.”
Earning $13 to $15 an hour, these banquet chefs are working for half of standard market rate, not close to a living wage in New York City. And though they have only received a 2 percent pay increase over the last eight years, the company has gone for the jugular, offering to “raise” pay in return for a healthcare downgrade.
But not only is Columbia being unfair to a union shop that has earned it more revenue than any other on campus, the school is also being patently dishonest. For every catered event at Faculty House, the administration slaps on a 22 percent service charge, yet that fee goes straight back to management. Workers have calculated that from 2012 bar mitzvahs and weddings alone, each employee has been deprived of approximately $2,000 in what could have been additional income. Even more egregiously, many workers are doing eighty-hour weeks, clocking in at 6 am and leaving at 10 pm, but are nonetheless classified as “part-time”, and thus are deprived of full-time benefits.