Student workers in the US strike for rights and benefits. Inside the university | Aisha Gani

“We feel like we’re on the right side of history,” says Delia Briébaudren-Thompson, one of the members of Columbia University’s Student Workers Union who walked off the job on Thursday morning, just before orientation week officially kicked off on campus. “We have children, and they’re going to be going to classes with us,” she adds. “We’re not going to be able to stay out indefinitely. We deserve better.”

The moment Briébaudren-Thompson began discussing the strike, much of the 20 students who gathered in front of the union’s doorway quietly snapped their fingers, cheered and smacked their foreheads. A few weeks after a dispute between student workers and Columbia’s administration was settled on the evening of Monday, October 8, the union’s members were upset that a clause in the deal had been written into the institution’s contract with an outside company, Cayton New York.

It allowed Cayton to sub-contract labor it does not already employ, like security, janitors and tutors, on Columbia campus. At first, the union worried that the company would use this space to hire workers and force their relationship with the union to end. Then it was uncertain how Cayton New York would characterize the strikers’ job descriptions. Now, they’re worried that the services they have employed Cayton to provide will leave them on the outside, at-will, and potentially confused as to why they’re striking. “Every time we do a story, one of our members said to me, ‘Yes, it sucks, it’s so horrible but our money is also at stake.’ We need to be supported. We’re not just out here for ourselves,” says Briébaudren-Thompson.

More than 100,000 students enroll at Columbia each year, and its administration should be used to performing a heavy job of balancing mass student enrollment, faculty and support staff. But the school is also plagued by an expensive, overstaffed architecture and solidified class sizes. It is not a convenient environment for student workers to organise—and so it has become the domain of low-wage domestic labor.

The situation is a critical one for students. In this time of rising tuition and layoffs and divestment at other prestigious colleges, it is hard for students to pin down exactly who makes decisions about their budget. On Thursday, student workers were happy to make clear who is actually making the monetary calculations.

“They found a solution that benefitted our university, but also ended up just as expensive for the student body,” says junior Eduardo Araujo, describing his union’s experience with the deal. “So I don’t really feel like we were necessarily taken care of.”

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