The last time National Nurses United, one of the world’s largest labor organizations, started a strike campaign at a university, striking workers fought hard for their paychecks.
“The fight was quite close,” said Felipe Velazquez, a 27-year-old medical student who works as a registered nurse at Columbia University Hospital in midtown Manhattan. “We were winning.”
Three years ago, the union recruited thousands of students and nurses to strike at New York’s New York University — which ultimately led to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
The largest campus-based labor campaign, however, will not be a students-versus-nurses battle. The picket lines begin Monday at Columbia — where workers have held four days of limited strikes in the past.
The group on strike will include approximately 800 frontline workers — or about 80 percent of all registered nurses at the university — who went on strike Friday morning.
The workers are asking for a wage increase of $17 to $20 per hour. With costs rising and salaries stagnant, they’ve been receiving less than the industry standard of $26 an hour. The average starting salary for nurses at Columbia University is $24.20 an hour, according to the school’s website.
Their salaries are not unionized, and there are fewer than 10 workers at a time, compared with the union-represented nurses, who number more than 200.
President of National Nurses United RoseAnn DeMoro said that while the main union federation has not authorized the Columbia strike, the effort is distinct from other campaigns, adding that the university administration “won’t do any work” on the issue.
“We are very likely to win the matter by any means, including a strike,” she said.
On Tuesday, Columbia University Hospital reiterated their commitment to a $2,000 increase over four years. As part of the labor dispute, the union is asking for a $1,600 bump by the end of the year.
Shannon Breymaier, a spokesman for the school, released the following statement in response to a reporter’s inquiry.
“The NYU model of encouraging good nurses to continue working in difficult circumstances as paid contractors has moved us in a very different direction,” she said. “We have made long-term gains that address the main wage and equity issue, as well as make sure that Columbia faculty and staff have consistent, full-time jobs.”
One of the nurses at Columbia said the timing of the strike is unfortunate.
“They’re just trying to throw a monkey wrench into everything,” she said. “The hospital is a building. They’re treating a position. That’s it.”
The students will be supporting the nurses when they hit the picket lines — with signs that say “Stay Strong.”
“A lot of us think that we’re treated like pieces of plastic or automatons,” Ms. DeMoro said. “I find that there’s an implicit humiliation.”