Scabbing: A Very Short Introduction

By Olivia Wood (@bi_rhetorics), Graduate Worker, PSC-CUNY Delegate from the Graduate Center

The Student Workers of Columbia (SWC-UAW) have been on strike for seven weeks, and since they are an academic union in NYC, their struggle for a good contract is deeply connected with ours at CUNY. It’s important to support them regardless, but supporting SWC means supporting ourselves too.

Our comrades at NYU-GSOC, their graduate workers union, have given us a heads up that Columbia is already trying to recruit new adjuncts to replace the striking student workers, and a petition is circulating to block this. We must not apply for these jobs. This is called being a scab, and being a scab is one of the worst things a worker can do. 

What does “don’t cross a picket line” mean?

When workers are on strike, the most important thing other workers can do is respect their picket line. This means refusing to do anything that would undermine the power of the strike.

“Don’t cross” can be literal — don’t walk past the picketers to enter the building. Members of the Teamsters union, for example, frequently refuse to deliver packages to anywhere there is a picket. UPS drivers even have an option in their computer system to select “there is a strike” as a reason why a package couldn’t be delivered. For us with Columbia, crossing the picket line could mean attending class, attending campus events, or teaching our own classes. 

“Don’t cross” can also be digital. For instance, if you are teaching at Columbia, holding your class on Zoom instead of on campus is still crossing the picket line. SWC is asking everyone to refuse to use any Columbia-owned Zoom accounts and to hold all events in alternate locations – physical or digital. 

What is a “scab”? 

A scab is any worker who undermines a strike using their labor. There are two types.

The first type is someone in the bargaining unit (in this case, a Columbia student worker) who refuses to go on strike and continues to work. 

The second type is an outside worker who agrees to replace the labor of the strikers. Scabs are sometimes hired through normal hiring processes, and they are sometimes hired via outside consulting firms that specialize in breaking strikes. If we accept an adjunct position, or even a full time position, to teach classes normally taught by graduate workers at Columbia, we are scabs. If undergrads accept positions to work as graders or TAs, they are scabs. 

Why is scabbing so horrible?

The reason strikes work is that withholding our labor hurts our employer. They can’t continue running business as usual — running classes at Columbia, or making cereal at Kellogg’s — without us. They want us to get back to work as soon as possible, so they are more likely to meet our demands. Employers hire scabs to mitigate the damage of a strike — that is, to scab over the wound. 

Scabs are often paid much higher than regular workers, because employers think it’s worth it to spend a lot of money for a short period of time in order to keep labor costs low — that is, pay people less and provide fewer benefits — in the long run. Because of this, it can be tempting to accept scab work! BUT YOU MUST NOT DO IT.

When someone agrees to be a scab, they are betraying the workers on strike by deliberately weakening their bargaining power. We all want the strongest, best contract possible, with the highest wages, best benefits, and most protections. Scabbing makes it more likely that strikers will be forced into a shittier contract. And for every union that accepts a bad contract, it makes it harder for other unions to win good ones.

For example:

Right now, most Columbia PhD students in the School of Arts and Sciences are on 9-month appointments and make about $35,000 per year. This is already a lot more than what Graduate Center Fellows make! ($8,000 more compared to first-year GC students.) In bargaining, CUNY argues this is okay because they are a private school and we are a public school, so it’s natural for them to make more money than us. 

However, if SWC wins their demand of about $42,000 in base compensation for 9-month employees (workers who just teach during the fall and spring semesters, for example), then they will make $15,000 more than us. Almost twice as big of a gap! 

It will be much harder for CUNY to argue that that is fair for us. But beyond that, CUNY will be incentivized to pay us more in an effort to attract students who might otherwise choose to attend Columbia. The bigger the pay difference, the more likely it is that money, and not the program itself, will be the deciding factor. Because NYU’s grad student union already won higher pay for their student workers, the pressure on CUNY is even higher.

So, would it be nice for a CUNY adjunct to make Columbia-level adjunct pay for a semester? Sure! But it’s better for all of us in the long run to stand in solidarity with SWC. Apply somewhere else for the spring. 

Don’t Columbia grad students have it pretty good, though?

No! Even though they make more money than we do at CUNY, their pay still falls far short of a living wage for Manhattan. And they don’t get dental or vision insurance like we do. 

Furthermore, most Columbia grad students live in Columbia-owned housing, which is extremely expensive. Based on average rent data, Columbia student workers pay more than half of their paychecks directly back to the university. Because Columbia owns so many buildings in the area, their high rents drive up the prices for the whole neighborhood, making even non-Columbia apartments more expensive. This hurts not just graduate students, but the whole community. 

Just like most CUNY students, most Columbia grad students work at least one extra job to pay the bills. It’s also common for them to sublet their apartments and move somewhere cheaper in the summers, since they can’t afford to pay Columbia rent year-round. You can read more on the SWC Testimonials page.

What does a “living wage” mean? Don’t lots of people in Manhattan make less than $45,000 a year?

Yes! A living wage doesn’t mean “the amount of money you need to not literally die.” It means the amount of money you need to consistently afford necessities plus basic comforts, enough to have a little leftover for fun activities and for savings, enough that you don’t need to worry how you’re going to pay the bills. 

Lots of people in Manhattan make less than a living wage, but that’s because wages should be higher for all of them too. Most likely, many who make less than a living wage augment their income with under-the-table work or rely on community support, such as free childcare from relatives. But most graduate students, especially at private schools, aren’t from New York! They came here specifically to study, and likely don’t have local networks of friends and/or family. 

More than 10% (12.9%) of all New Yorkers are food-insecure, which means they don’t have consistent and reliable access to enough nutritious food to live an active and healthy life. Even during the eviction moratorium, nearly 10% of all NYC public school children experienced housing instability — that is, they may not be living on the street, but they don’t have a permanent place to call home. Living is not the same as living safely or living well. A living wage means everyone makes enough to be safe and comfortable, and everyone deserves that.

In sum:

Sign the petition if you haven’t already, and share the message with your friends: don’t scab. Refuse to collaborate with scabbers. Support Columbia strikers. In doing so, you will be building toward a better future, not just for Columbia, not just for CUNY, but for all of us together.