Reflections on the Columbia Tuition Strike (Part I)
These reflections were written to debrief a partially successful tuition strike campaign organized by the Columbia-Barnard YDSA chapter during the 2020-2021 academic year. Organized in exceptional circumstances, and attaining a level of support never before seen in a tuition strike, our campaign was largely groundbreaking. As a result, we had to figure out a lot of things along the way. It is our hope in writing these reflections that those who wish to carry out tuition strikes on their campuses will avoid some of the many pitfalls we encountered.
The tuition strike
In late March 2020, in my last semester as an undergraduate at Columbia, at the height of the crisis created by the pandemic in New York City, I was putting in a lot of hours each day organizing in solidarity with the graduate workers’ union (which had just authorized a strike) and in support of demands around housing security as undergrads were being kicked out of their dorms. During that time, a comrade of mine on the Graduate Workers of Columbia Bargaining Committee messaged me out of the blue: “What’re your thoughts about threatening a fall tuition strike?”
I thought the idea was exciting, but my first thought was: there’s no way in hell that would ever succeed, especially at a place like Columbia. Four years of being involved in socialist organizations at Columbia hadn’t left me with a lot of faith in the possibilities of radical organizing at an Ivy League school where more students come from the top 1% than the bottom 20%. It was difficult enough getting students to sign petitions in support of tuition remissions or reductions without facing attacks from right-wing students. My response at the time was tentative support: “The only thing I’m wondering is whether there are any precedents for it? ‘Cause it would only work if a majority of students are on board.”
The answer, as it turned out, was that there wasn’t really much of a precedent at all (this was before the University of Chicago tuition strike involving 200 students in April 2020). I dutifully forwarded the idea along to the rest of the Columbia YDSA organizing committee, but others were even more skeptical than me. We were a new chapter (less than a year old) and were struggling with just getting more than five people to come to our Zoom meetings during COVID. When my friend on the Bargaining Committee followed up with me about the idea a week or so later, my response was: “I’m just worried that the general undergrad student population is not radicalized or organized enough to pull something like that off.”
Fast forward to a year later. It’s March 2021, and I’m sending out email updates to the 4,500 Columbia students who signed on in support of the tuition strike, announcing the results of our recent vote and the continuation of the strike into its third month. Our best estimate of the number of students still withholding tuition payments at this point is a little less than the approximately 1,000 students who had started striking in January (the numbers were, unfortunately, always a bit fuzzy, despite our best efforts to confirm with as many people as possible). At this point, our tuition strike had earned national and international attention, with coverage in The Guardian, CNN, the New York Times, and over 50 other news outlets (there were days when I was interviewing with up to three or more reporters back-to-back). We had received endorsements from 10 elected officials and had heard from students at 16 other universities who were interested in joining a national tuition strike.
Looking back, it’s all a bit surreal. What happened in the course of those twelve months to make what had once seemed like a complete impossibility into a reality? Even if we had won absolutely no concessions from Columbia, I would still consider the sheer number of students we were able to organize an unimaginable victory.
The fact is that we did actually win some fairly impressive concessions. Almost everyone who went on strike got all their late fees waived (and those who weren’t able to get waivers were able to get their fees covered by our strike fund; we even had funds left over by the end). We won fossil fuel divestment on the first day of the strike in January. At the end of the strike three months later, we won over a billion dollars in increased financial aid (to be introduced over the next five years).
Now, of course, I could spend multiple paragraphs explaining all the inadequacies of Columbia’s response to our fossil fuel divestment demand as well as our demand for increased financial aid, and of course they fell frustratingly short of our full demands letter, but what’s most striking to me is that these were still incredible victories that had essentially cost the average tuition striker nothing in terms of retaliation or even late fees.
So, clearly, there were a lot of strengths in our campaign. First and most important, we were able to organize thousands of students, most of whom had never engaged in any kind of collective action before, many of whom weren’t even necessarily politically active (certainly, only a tiny, tiny minority would consider themselves socialists). And we organized them on behalf of a series of demands that were unapologetically socialist — including demands for divestment from Israeli apartheid.
So many people placed their faith in us as organizers and, even more profoundly, in the thousands of other students striking alongside them. No political education program can teach you so much about the value of solidarity or the potential of collective action, or about the interconnections between so many different kinds of demands — from racial justice, to affordable education, to international solidarity, to labor rights, to climate justice, to abolition — as that process of actually taking action on behalf of your own liberation, in concert with thousands of other people who you know are fighting alongside you.
How were we able to bring so many students into the movement? Well, we faced a lot of skepticism at first, but our efforts gained legitimacy as we pulled in ever-greater numbers of people. The first key to success was simply finding ways to reach every single student at the university. Fortunately for us, we were able to figure out a way to pull emails from the Columbia directory and mass-email every single student at the school with our tuition strike pledge. We weren’t sure whether this tactic would work — after all, what kind of person would commit to join a tuition strike just because some stranger had sent them an unsolicited email about it?
As it turns out, that’s exactly what thousands of students ended up doing. On our first round of mass emails, we gained nearly a thousand signatories in just one weekend; on our second round, we gained over a thousand more; on our third round, we gained yet another thousand; and so on until it acquired an irresistible momentum of its own, eventually reaching the total of 4,500 students (about 15% of the student body) by the start of the strike in January. I think it speaks to how deeply our demands for an equitable, accessible, and democratized university resonated with the average student that so many people signed on through nothing but an email or two from a complete stranger. I can imagine that many, many more students agreed with demands but simply didn’t sign on because of how outlandish, risky, or futile the tactic might’ve seemed to them at the time.
But just sending out emails wasn’t enough; we all believed deeply in the importance of one-on-one organizing as the only way to really inoculate people against the potential risks of a tuition strike, ensure their commitment to striking, and encourage them to become active participants in organizing their fellow students. We held weekly organizing trainings and phonebanks and had FAQ sheets and other materials listing all the ways that supporters could take action besides just withholding tuition.
We also recruited many people to our YDSA chapter through these one-on-one conversations; in one week alone, at the height of the campaign, I had organizing conversations with over 40 new or interested members. Our membership list jumped from around 20 to almost 100 dues-paying DSA members in the course of a few weeks.
Even more crucial was the development of our core membership; most of our Organizing Committee had only joined in the past semester and had very little prior organizing experience. Through the campaign, our Organizing Committee members developed the skills necessary to sustain a lifelong commitment to socialist organizing (not to mention deep bonds of solidarity unlike anything else I’ve experienced in years of organizing).
Finally, another real strength of the campaign was the emphasis on democratic decision-making; every step of the way, we sought to involve as many people as possible in discussion and voting on all important decisions made during the campaign, from the initial decision in October to expand our demands to include labor rights, divestment, abolition, and racial justice demands, to every decision on whether to keep striking or not (we held votes on this every few weeks throughout the three months of the strike).
Although we faced some criticism for expanding the demands, and there were a lot of strategic disagreements even within the Organizing Committee about whether it was the right choice, I personally believe it made the campaign much stronger, not only because it was supported by the majority of our base but also, even more importantly, because it broadened the vision of the campaign, serving as a crucial form of political education, drawing connections between various struggles and connecting them to a systemic critique of the commodified and undemocratic nature of higher education institutions.
At the same time, it’s important to not overstate the strengths of our campaign. One thing the news articles don’t capture is just how many mistakes we made and how many serious organizing challenges we faced. The most severe flaw of our tuition strike was how few people we were actually able to bring into the “bullseye” — in other words, how few new active and core organizers we were actually able to develop. Despite our explosive growth in “paper membership,” our YDSA chapter actually lost most of its active membership. And our core membership actually shrunk — we had about fifteen core members in our Organizing Committee in the Fall semester, and this had been reduced to only about seven core members in the Spring semester.
Some of this decline, of course, might be related to the organizing challenges posed by the pandemic, as students suffered from Zoom fatigue, time zone differences, and a lack of connection to Columbia. Decreased capacity put a considerable strain on a small number of Organizing Committee members as we scrambled to organize votes, send out email updates to our tuition strike signatories, respond to press requests, and organize phone banks and virtual and in-person days of action, town halls, and organizing meetings, all while we were also balancing full-time classes, work, and other organizing responsibilities. This intense burn-out of our core organizers meant that we were hampered from doing the kind of deeper, relational organizing that we knew we really needed to create a lasting, successful movement.
I think the reason for that drop-off in active and core membership, even as we were reaching a much, much wider audience, had a lot to do with the fact that we no longer had the capacity to organize political education events or maintain one-on-one contacts with members outside of the Organizing Committee. We couldn’t figure out how to effectively delegate our campaign work and get new members involved, despite our best intentions. We faced a serious “collective action problem” in which everyone was assuming that, since so many thousands of students had signed on, they didn’t have to personally help organize the campaign. The fundamental problem was that we had reached way more students than we had the capacity to meaningfully organize, and struggled to develop new core organizers who could extend our capacity.
That being said, the other major flaw with the tuition strike was that, despite our impressive numbers, we still only ever reached a minority of students. A labor strike where only one out of every 20 workers in a given workplace go on strike is not going to be very effective; the same is true of a tuition strike.
Columbia is an extremely powerful and wealthy institution with an endowment larger than the GDP of many countries. If we want to win all our demands, we will need a supermajority tuition strike. The only way we will ever get there is if we create lasting organization that binds together students through lasting bonds of solidarity.
We aren’t committing ourselves to organizing another tuition strike yet because, at this stage, that’s a decision that will have to be made democratically by the student body, after much more organizing has been done to lay the groundwork. We’re currently drafting up plans for some kind of longer-term student organization at Columbia, taking inspiration from the radical student unions of Quebec, that might serve as the basis for the kind of grassroots, democratic organizing that will be needed to make this a sustainable movement that can outlive its organizers and become something broader than just YDSA.
Only time will tell whether this campaign marks a real shift in student organizing, or whether it will simply fade away as students graduate and the news cycle moves on, as has happened with so many student movements before. Regardless of the outcome, I don’t regret any of the time I spent on the campaign. The gains of class struggle are not always measured in concrete, obvious victories, but they are enduring nonetheless.
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