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Dispatches from Labor Notes 2024: Solidarity with Columbia Students Against Repression

The Labor Notes Conference this year takes place right after over 100 students were arrested at Columbia for protesting for Palestine. We must use this conference to build a strong campaign against the repression which will impact us all if it is allowed to stand.

Olivia Wood

April 20, 2024
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A tent encampment at Columbia University decorated with two signs that say "Liberated Zone" and "Gaza Solidarity Encampment"
Photo Credit: Eric Halvarson

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, dozens of students at Columbia University set up a Palestine solidarity encampment on the lawn of Butler library, with one tent emblazoned with a “Liberated Zone” banner in direct homage to a banner Columbia students raised during the occupation of 1968. The occupation was timed to align with Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s testimony before Congress about the university’s efforts to repress pro-Palestine activism on campus. The (officially banned by the university) Columbia chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) announced the encampment with an Instagram post featuring pictures of both the current and the 1968 banners juxtaposed with one another. I saw this post while eating breakfast and nearly cried a little. 

The encampment made it through the day and through the night. My question: What would happen? Would the encampment be crushed, in the context of a highly repressive environment and a waning movement in the streets? Or would it prevail?

On Thursday, I got on a plane to fly to the 2024 Labor Notes conference in Chicago, where over 4,000 union members from the United States and around the world gather to discuss organizing. For most of the 2.5 hour flight, I was glued to Twitter, reading updates from Columbia as the NYPD was called in to break up the encampment and arrest the students. After their arrested classmates were bussed away for processing, more students rushed in to occupy the opposite lawn. The Columbia Spectator reported that even the NYPD admitted the demonstrators posed no threat to campus, throwing the university president under the bus. My feed was full of posts, not only updates from campus, but from students, faculty, and staff from universities all over the country expressing outrage over a university inviting the police to their campus and directly asking them to arrest students. People began drawing comparisons not only to the 1968 occupation at Columbia — in which students held a dean hostage and the police still weren’t called until days later — but also to the Kent State massacre, when the National Guard shot several student protesters. The campus movement for Palestine has already been one of the biggest resurgences of U.S. student activism since the 60s, but the parallels are growing stronger. 

It seemed that outrage was spreading, at least among the higher education sector. Higher ed workers are painfully aware of how administrators and politicians are attacking our own working conditions and the learning conditions of our students on a variety of fronts, including program closures and mass cuts, attempts to abolish tenure, bans on “DEI” and “controversial topics,” and repression of student and worker activism, including strikes. Calling the NYPD on your own students is a huge escalation that even faculty who don’t agree with the protesters about Palestine oppose.

Friday morning, the first panel I went to at LaborNotes was about undergraduate worker organizing on college campuses. As a former undergraduate campus worker myself, I left feeling emotional, especially when student workers from Kentucky and Virginia began discussing how to organize in states where public sector collective bargaining is illegal, which is also a problem in my home state of North Carolina where I was an undergraduate campus worker. For this reason, the University of North Carolina system, where I went to school, was already on my mind as I walked out of the session.

The wifi here isn’t working and I don’t have cell service in the meeting rooms, so as I left the session, notifications began to flood in. Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have begun their own encampment in solidarity with the suspended and arrested Columbia students. As I waited in line to buy lunch, I really did cry a little. As a Southern state, North Carolina has a reputation for being conservative; it certainly doesn’t have a reputation for radicalism. But people forget the lunch counter sit-ins were started by students at NC A&T University, who were soon joined by students from Bennett College, Dudley High School, and white allies from my own alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (then Women’s College of North Carolina). UNC Chapel Hill students and student workers were also instrumental in the movement against Confederate monuments in the late 2010s.

Students at Miami University of Ohio, Harvard, and other schools held solidarity walkouts on Friday. While I was writing this article, students at Yale also began their own encampment. 

While I was in the undergrad organizing panel, members of Student Workers of Columbia (SWC, UAW 2710) were busy; people in the NYC Labor Notes group chat were asking what could be done, if we could have a meeting. SWC members at the conference began setting one up. With only an hour or so of lead time, around 100 Labor Notes attendees, many of whom are not from NYC, gathered during the conference lunch break to discuss solidarity with the arrested Columbia students. SWC is circulating this solidarity petition against the repression that can be signed by both individuals and unions (click this link to sign), and many more ideas and issues were raised at the meeting.

This illustrates some of the potential of Labor Notes; when over 4,000 mobilized workers from all over are gathered in one place, things can happen. 

As my comrade Tatiana Cozzarelli pointed out during the meeting: UAW President Shawn Fain is at this conference — he should call for the UAW to mobilize in support of the students. The UAW represents the graduate workers and some of the academic staff at Columbia as well as the adjunct faculty at Barnard College, Columbia’s sister school. 

What if Shawn Fain had attended the meeting? What if he did make that call? What if Labor Notes used its network to call for solidarity? What if instead of inviting people like Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to speak at the opening session, we used this opportunity to have the conversations needed to build a new working class party that collaborated nationwide to engage in political fights? What if we used the Labor Notes conference to organize a combative fight against the repression of the Palestine movement, using our power as workers?

Workers here are eager, angry, and inspired. My hope is that as a result of this meeting, SWC gets a lot more signatures for their solidarity statement, but that it also kickstarts a larger movement against repression. One worker at the meeting spoke about how no one ever won a strong contract without a protest — and so the right to protest impacts all of us, and if we give them an inch by allowing such repression at Columbia to go unchecked, they’ll take a mile. Just a handful of examples we’ve already covered on our website, like the escalations from the Detroit police, in New Jersey, at Google, and in Berlin, all show that repression for Palestine activism is ramping up. The Fifth Circuit Court has already made a ruling that will significantly curtain protests in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas by making protest organizers liable for any crimes committed by participants — and the Supreme Court allowed this ruling to stand. 

While the timing of this conference with the Columbia encampment is a coincidence, let’s not let our time together in Chicago as representatives of the U.S. labor movement go to waste. Let’s use this opportunity to broaden the movement in support of the Columbia students and protect all of us against further repression.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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