“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.
Pushed into a corner, the Faculty House workers have been forced to take action. On January 25, twenty-five workers hosted a teach-in during which they communicated their plight to over 120 Columbia students packed into a small classroom. On February 8, an official union rally attracted more than 200 workers, community members and students who rallied through campus in the midst of a blizzard. Finally, on February 28, the group voted decisively to authorize a strike as temporary healthcare coverage is about to run out in a few weeks.
In response to these efforts, the campus activism that I dreamed of as a high schooler has finally resurged. Led by the activist labor group Student Worker Solidarity, students have stormed administrative offices, held weekly rallies attracting hundreds onto the Columbia steps and delivered numerous petitions to managers, HR personnel and President Bollinger himself. In fact, largely because of the massive student presence at negotiations, the administration has walked out on several occasions, allowing the Faculty House workers to file an Unfair Labor Practice with the Labor Department, which earned them the right to strike without reprisal. But students have built more than an organization, they have formed intensely personal relationships with the workers.
Almost everyday, I go to Faculty House to chat with the workers. Sometimes it’s about a planning a rally or moving forward, but often it’s just joking around and shooting the breeze. This sense of community and solidarity has permeated beyond Faculty House. Last Tuesday, I was talking to a worker at a Columbia café, who sent me to our main cafeteria because workers from a different union were interested in our actions. The next Friday, they came out in droves, showing solidarity with their fellow workers and expressing gratitude and relief in knowing that students were behind them. I can’t walk around campus without running into a worker, who turned up to a rally, or a faculty member that spoke out on behalf of us. It seems that students and workers united are finally building the “Columbia community” that the administration often talks about.
As a first-year, I am ashamed of my school’s leadership. I never wear my Columbia hoodie around the city because I don’t want to be associated with the exploitation of immigrants, the conquest of Harlem or any of the school’s other attacks on people of color. At the heart of the issue is Columbia’s hypocrisy. The administration cannot brag about fostering a progressive community while also harming those who serve it. As one of the workers, Osmond Cousins, who has dedicated eighteen years to Columbia, put it, “They think they can have their cake and eat it too.” But if the restaurant workers at Columbia continue to undergo such abuse, there won’t be any cake left for anyone.