“The tuition strike was a stepping stone”

Reflections on the Columbia Tuition Strike (Part III)

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.

It is hard to say whether the tuition strike was a success. Good: We won a $1.4 billion-dollar increase in financial aid, divestment from fossil fuels, waiver of most late fees for the semester, and emergency grants for students. Our membership more than tripled. We had more than 50 articles published in local and national news outlets, inspiring students from a number of other universities to organize tuition strikes at their schools. Bad: We did not win all of our demands. 

Throughout the strike, I always thought of it as necessarily a stepping stone, a means of introducing students to collective action, from which we could build a politically educated and organized base. As the tuition strike hit its stride in December, with hundreds of students signing on each day, I imagined the campaign would naturally spill into riskier in-person actions, popular venues for political education, and massive community meetings. I didn’t know when or how we would achieve these goals, but I trusted that we would be able to capitalize on the moments as they came. 

Looking back, I think this was naïve. While I am extremely excited by the success of the strike, I cannot help but lament the strike’s missed opportunities and squandered potential to achieve even more. Ultimately, the strike became bigger than the organizers. In the future, I hope to bear these lessons in mind to better helm a movement: 

  1. Organize based on what you’re structurally prepared for. How many people can you train in a single week? How many people can you call/text/email? How many people will regularly attend meetings? A sustainable, long-term movement should be in consistent personal contact with all of its supporters. 
  2. Plan everything in advance. What levels of support do you need before you take certain actions? How will you know when you’ve reached those levels? What will you do if you don’t? The tuition strike really underscored how you can’t just hope for the best and prepare for the worst — you have to prepare for everything in between as well. This includes preparing your supporters for the ambiguities, grey areas, and contingencies that will likely result from the campaign. 
  3. Have a clear idea of your goals, both intermediate and long-term. For us, our goal was to win our demands. To do this, we needed to get a meeting with the Columbia administration. To do this, we needed to garner enough student support so that the administration would be forced to meet with us — but this is where our goals (or at least my conception of them) became vague. How many students do we need to strike? What are the intermediate steps towards getting that many students? What do we do if we have that many students striking, but Columbia still refuses to meet?
  4. Have a clear and shared vision of your theory of change. Within the organizing committee, I think there was some disagreement as to how the tuition strike would create change. I primarily saw it as a public pressure campaign, a way of attracting public scrutiny and negative press attention towards Columbia, damaging their reputation enough that material concessions would be necessary to repair it. Others on the organizing committee conceived of it as a direct pressure campaign, a means of depriving Columbia of such a significant portion of their operating revenue that normal college life couldn’t continue, leading Columbia to concede. These two different theories led to important differences in our understandings of the intermittent goals and benchmarks of the campaign. 

Clearly, none of these deficiencies were damning. The success of the tuition strike was basically unprecedented. Nonetheless, reflecting on the campaign, there are a number of things we could have done differently, both before and during, to have increased the likelihood of achieving our goals.

What have you learned from your chapter’s campaigns? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!