Back in the spring, we spoke with three graduate student workers at Columbia University who were on strike with the Student Workers of Columbia union, UAW Local 2110. After rank-and-file members rejected the tentative agreement between the university and the bargaining committee, negotiations continued. However, Columbia has still failed to meet key demands, including better wages, dental and vision healthcare coverage, and third-party arbitration for cases involving harassment and discrimination. Now, Student Workers of Columbia are back on strike and have been on the picket line since Nov. 3. In this mini-cast, we talk with three graduate student workers, Joanna Lee, Tamara Hache, and Caroline Smith, about the current strike and how academic workers are an essential part of the labor movement.

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Joanna:        Hi, I’m Joanna. I’m a PhD student at Columbia university and I’m an organizer with our student worker union, Student Workers of Columbia.

Caroline:             And I’m Caroline. And I’m also a PhD student at Columbia University and I’m helping to organize, and you’ll also find me on the picket line as a captain.

Tamara:             Hi, I’m Tamara. I’m a fourth year PhD student worker at Columbia University and also involved in organizing with our union SWC.

Maximillian Alvarez:    All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you. So, as y’all heard, we’ve got an urgent mini-cast for y’all today. Listeners to the show have probably heard. Just because striketober ended does not mean that workers’ demands have all been met. Far from it. And in fact, there is a crucial ongoing strike happening right now with student workers at Columbia University in New York. And we are honored to be joined by this panel to basically give us the rundown on what’s going on with the strike, what the university’s response has been, what workers demands are, and why, for God’s sake, the university is refusing to meet them.

And folks may remember – You’re not having deja vu – But back in March, we actually had Joanna from this panel along with comrades Harlan Chambers and Cameron Foltz on the show. That mini-cast was called Columbia Is a Bully where we talked about a strike that was happening then in March and some really important negotiations between the union and the university and we broke all that down. So I would encourage folks listening to this, if you want some deeper background here, you should go back and re-listen to that episode because I thought Joanna, Harlan, and Cameron gave a really great summary of all the important issues that were on the table. And I figured what we would do here by way of giving listeners all the information that they need about the current strike is pick up where we left off in March and walk folks through what’s been happening since we recorded them to now, both on the union side, on the university side.

So I one wondering if y’all could just walk listeners through that gap there. When we were recording that, we were still in the midst of COVID and we’re still in the goddamn midst of COVID. So there were a lot of virtual picket lines, there were a lot of people out walking the in-person picket line, but there’s also a lot of other crucial issues that have very much not gone away. So yeah, I guess, why don’t we start there? Why don’t we fill listeners in from March to now, what’s been going down.

Joanna:               So we had a three-week strike in the spring semester, and the conclusion of that strike was basically an unsatisfactory tentative agreement between the union and the university. The strike was paused undemocratically by union leadership and members felt that it was not time to go off strike. And members also felt that what we had gotten out of the strike was simply insufficient. So what happened was we had a ratification vote and our membership, in spite of strong messaging that we should ratify the contracts from both the university and a portion of union leadership, voted down the tentative agreement. We’ve seen this trend in a couple of other places, I think more significantly and recently we’ve seen that happen at John Deere, but we’ve seen that voting down a tentative agreement can be a strategy to signal to the university or to the employer that what they have offered us is not enough and that we are still going to fight for more.

And because of the nature of the way our year works there was a long summer in between so we couldn’t exactly continue our strike, but we were resolved to continue fighting for more. So we elected new union leadership, we continued organizing, and we knew that we were going to hit the ground running in the fall with a new strike.

Caroline:           I’ll just add I think that this was a really crucial moment for us. I think that there was a lot of internal reflection and the tentative agreement caused a lot of people to think about, are we going to accept something that, first of all, doesn’t include everybody who’s on strike, and are we going to be satisfied with this? And frankly, our unit said no. And so that was a really tremendous moment for us to galvanize and push us into this next wave of where we’re at, frankly, right now. And it helped us to really dig deep and motivated people to get out there, and I think that’s why we’ve seen such tremendous energy. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to get people who were on strike and then not on strike and then to get back out there. But there’s so much real conviction in what we’re doing. It’s really tremendous.

Tamara:              Yeah, absolutely. I’d just like to amplify the fact that voting no to that tentative agreement was very powerful for all of us and very empowering. And I do feel that right now where we’re at, we have this amazing support from everyone in our unit and also from our undergraduate community. And that has been a significant change from last time as well. Also, because now, of course, everyone is back on campus and that changes dynamics a lot. And I think we have really found a way to tap into that energy of being back on campus in our favor. And that has been a beautiful thing to see, and it’s been truly inspiring.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, that actually is like a perfect segue to a question, a follow-up question that I had to something you said, Caroline. This is something that we’ve talked about on the show before, I started the show back when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was very invested in the academic labor movement. Still, obviously, am. Here we are. But this was something that we tried to highlight for listeners when we were covering other worker struggles happening in academia, is there are a lot of built-in barriers to being able to do what y’all are doing right now in the higher education system. And some of them are so obvious that we can almost forget that they’re there. If you’re trying to organize students or graduate students, they’re only there for a certain amount of time and they also have breaks, a very big fat one that is in the middle of summer.

And so it’s no surprise that when you have strikes going on or negotiations that are dragging out a go-to strategy by university administrations is to basically wait until the summer so that they can take the wind out of the sails. They know that people are going to disperse, they know it’s going to be hard to restart that engine back in the fall. And then on top of that, some people are going to be graduating, some people are going on the job market, yada, yada, yada. And then we also talked about how the long process by which other instructors who aren’t graduate students or students have become contingent labor whose contracts are dependent on things like student reviews and attendance and so on and so forth. And so a lot of… And the majority of classes at universities across the country are taught by contingent instructors.

And so when you have graduate students, students who are only there for a certain amount of time, when you got the majority of instructors who are teaching on precarious contracts, there are, again, a lot of these built-in barriers to the university system that make it very difficult to organize, that make it very difficult to sustain movements like the one being led by the Student Workers at Columbia. So I wanted to ask first how y’all were able to do that. And also if we could maybe, by way of talking about that, drill down on those contract sticking points that were not covered in the tentative agreement that was reached back in the spring and that have brought y’all out to the picket line now.

Joanna:        I think one of the things that you highlighted is the really unique… It’s unique, but also not. I think that it’s something that we’re actually seeing across all industries right now, the nature of work being really different where it’s seasonal, it’s more precarious, there’s more informal labor and contract labor going around. And that actually has presented a challenge to, I think, labor organizing as a whole. It’s also demanded that we think about strikes, I think, in broader terms. In the traditional model, you disrupt production by going on strike. But now we’re actually seeing that that is sometimes not the only way to do things. So we’re also doing a lot of demonstrations, marches, engaging in the community. We had people from United Front Against Displacement, Harlem residents come and participate in our actions because we recognize that the strike needs to be broader and engage all these communities, somewhat as a result of the way the nature of work has changed in the labor movement. And especially in higher education where we’re seeing increasing casualization, the expectation of work for PhD workers has been going up.

We form a huge part of teaching, for example, the core classes at Columbia. And so withholding our labor has power, but the university has also gotten really creative around finding ways around that and so we’ve had to expand what a strike looks like. And I will say that that’s one of the ways we actually galvanized the movement. A week before we went on strike, we actually had undergrads and a bunch of other community members storm the class of the president of the university in a way that actually got a response from the university at the bargaining table. And it was because we engaged people in that type of direct action and made the strike more than just withholding our labor and finding other points of leverage that we could use in the fight.

Caroline:            Yeah, absolutely. And I think the question of temporality is so interesting too, because for me something that I’ve learned in this iteration of the strike is that it’s not just about right now. I’m in the third year of my PhD program, and the contract that hopefully we will get will hopefully outlast my tenure here at Columbia. But people at Columbia have been fighting this fight for years. And whatever happens now will affect students in the future and student workers in the future. And I think about that in terms of my own future. I see parents who are struggling to take their kids to the dentist because they simply cannot afford it. And I think about starting a family. And to hear the university say, well, we’re simply young and healthy students, why would we need to provide dental insurance? Why would we need to provide vision insurance? And that’s just simply not true. And so in a lot of ways, the strike has brought to the fore realization that we are a diverse group, both in age and experience.

And we don’t all come from independently wealthy backgrounds, and you have to support families, and you have to support people no matter what, where they come from. And I think another interesting thing is that it’s a lot of these issues have broken down according to gender lines. For example, folks in the school of social work, they’re paid $12,000 less than other schools which is truly mind blowing. So pay parity is tremendous. But then you look at the people who are in the social work department, it’s mostly women. So, for me, thinking about just the past workers, future workers, as well as, it’s not just about me. And I think a lot of times people opposed to the strike say, oh, you just want more money. But that’s not it. This is about our dignity, this is about our livelihoods, and this is about justice for past, present, and future.

Tamara:               Yes, absolutely. I think that’s something that has become more and more clear with this strike is how our actions here at Columbia are impacting other labor struggles. So you were talking about academic labor, that made me very happy considering academic labor is labor. The nature of labor is changing and that is something that we need to take into consideration always. And I feel that what we’re doing right now at Columbia is for future generations of students to make it more accessible to more students, but also for other universities to see what’s happening here at Columbia. That is an example that we’re setting right here and right now, and I feel that is extremely powerful. And I think it’s so important that all of us here have in mind that what we’re doing right now is not just for us. I’m in my fourth year, like I said, and also just like Caroline was saying, this hopefully will be a contract that will be put in place for after I graduate from Columbia.

And that is what we’re looking for. It’s not just about what we need right now, but what that will mean for future generations of students that come to Columbia. And as I said before, for other universities as well. And I do think that that’s something that we always have to bear in mind, and that is something that I feel is especially powerful and valuable about the movement that we have here at Columbia right now.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, it’s been very encouraging to see over, I feel the past few years, some of that stubborn, ideological crust start to break down. The cultural projections that we put on higher education and what happens there and who works there and what they do. I imagine all of you, like so many of us, had to go through first the process of having the wool pulled from my eyes myself when I got to grad school and I was like, oh, shit. You mean to tell me that 70% or more of teaching positions in higher education are taught by contingent labor? That sucks. That’s not what I thought was the case. And then I learned how bad adjunctification is, I learned how hard it is to make ends meet on a graduate student salary, that oftentimes that salary does not cover the summer. All of that kind of shit that you have to learn when you get there.

And it reminds me of when I first got to the University of Michigan. To really underline this point I’d been working as a waiter in Chicago. I did not have a family that could financially support me. And part of starting my PhD program was doing the summer program that I had a little stipend for to last me through the summer. So I saved up as much as I could with my tips. All of that savings went to the U-Haul truck and to the security deposit on my apartment. And I ran out of money halfway through the summer. And I was like, hey, I’ve been stretching this as far as I can, but I basically don’t have anywhere to go. What can I do?

And they basically kept chiding me for spending my money frivolously and I was like, on what? On rent? On food? I’m not lavishly, I’m not Scrooge McDuck diving into my big pile of grad student stipend here. I’m really living as close to the bone as I can. And I finally got one of the administrators to admit, well, there’s a presumption that people who do this fellowship will have independent financial support. And I was like, well, what about people like me who don’t fucking have that? What’s your plan? And they were like, well, get a credit card. And so I say that not to make this about me, but again, to really highlight for folks that there’s still so much about what goes on in academia that clashes with that old 20th century idealized depiction of college campuses as Ivy-covered utopias where everyone wears elbow patches and learns about the beauty of everything, everyone’s paid well, everyone has good retirement, yada, yada, yada.

Very much not the case and the process of making it this way has been going on for a long time. And so it is encouraging to see that more and more folks are starting to reckon with that fact and see higher education in the United States for what it is. But also as you mentioned, Tamara, to see also more common cause with academic workers and other workers who, around the country and beyond, are basically fed the fuck up right now because we’ve been getting a raw deal for a long time. We’ve been seeing, you mentioned the John Deere strike earlier. Those fellow UAW members rejected not one but two contracts before ratifying a third. And they kept pointing to the fact that it’s like, look, we sacrificed during the pandemic and we have made this company more fucking profitable than it has ever been. It is raking in over $5.7 billion and they’re still trying to take more.

You see that kind of similar dynamic happening at universities where they’re like, well, you guys are over there touting how big your endowment is, but you’re telling us that we can’t pay for dental for our kids? So anyway, clearly we’ve struck a nerve. So I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent, but again, can we drill down on those specific issues like the pay parity, like the dental and other types of insurance. What were those issues that really made you feel like the last contract was insufficient and that the university needs to come to the table now?

Joanna:            So I was on the bargaining committee last semester. And one of the things that the university kept saying to us during that strike was that they anticipated losses from the pandemic, they anticipated the need to tighten the purse strings, impose some austerity for them to make it out alive of the pandemic, the whole institution. And so they were trying to convince us for a three or four-year contract to basically not get any of the raises. In fact, to get raises that were lower than what we’ve gotten in the past on the grounds that this was necessary for the university to survive the pandemic. And one of the most, I think, radicalizing moments for our union was when we discovered, just I think a couple weeks ago, that the university made $3.3 billion in returns on their endowment and other operations this year.

And that figure is the highest that they’ve ever made on returns in a single year. During a global pandemic when many of us could not pay our rent because we were stuck abroad, or there were travel bans, or we were stranded somewhere, when many of us couldn’t do our research, when many of us actually faced health risks by continuing to teach in some form or another, when they expected parents to be teaching on Zoom without childcare subsidies. When all of this was happening, the university made record-high profits. And it was just absurd that even in the face of that they could come back and say your demands are too expensive. And our demands are not expensive. So for example, we’re asking for dental insurance for all workers. This is something that we used to have a few years ago. PhD student workers used to have dental insurance and the university took it away unilaterally without consulting the union or consulting anybody.

We’re asking for a living wage. And according to Columbia’s own calculations – So they actually have a website that has how much they anticipate living in New York City will cost. Living a full year in New York city for 12 months would cost us around $48,000 by the university’s own estimations. We only earn for those of us, especially in the humanities and social sciences, we only earn $35,000. So the university basically admitted at the bargaining table, we know that you can’t afford living here. But what they said to us was, but you’re part-time workers, you’re also studying. So you don’t deserve to get a living wage the way other employees in our university do. So it’s not even really about the cost, it’s just that Columbia refuses to acknowledge the importance of our labor and that’s why a strike is the only tool that we have to make them see our demands and respond to our demands.

Caroline:         Yeah. And in addition to things like compensation and dental and vision as a vision of expanded healthcare, because clearly we don’t have a sustainable healthcare system in America, we’re simply asking for just regular dental cleanings. This is very basic stuff. We’re also asking for things like neutral third-party arbitration. So this is a tricky one to explain, but it’s really, really important. Currently, if a student is harassed or bullied within the university, it gets processed through the EOAA office, which is an internal review process through Columbia. And this is really problematic. So if you have faculty members who are sitting on this board, basically adjudicating what their peers are doing to students, there’s a real problem.

So we’re simply asking for a neutral third party arbitrator to take care of these cases and review them fairly. And we really think of this as an issue of power and it just can’t happen if Columbia is overseeing the process. And so this is a really hard sticking point for us. And then finally, recognition. So we want every worker recognized by the NLRB to be part of our unit. This was established in a 2018 ruling by the NLRB. This is not rocket science and yet Columbia still likes to push back. And maybe, Tamara, you can explain a little bit more there.

Tamara:               Yeah, no. Absolutely. I think that Columbia is pushing back on everything. The last episode of this podcast as I heard was called Columbia Is a Bully. Well, Columbia’s still a bully, but we’re lucky that we’re not taking it anymore. And that’s why we are on strike. So just to recap, our main demands for our contract are living wage, [fair] compensation, comprehensive healthcare which includes dental and vision, real recourse against cases of harassment and discrimination, and recognition as workers. So as Caroline was saying before, this is about way more than just about the money. It’s not that, oh, the PhD students, they just want more money. They’re not really workers. I feel like this point of us not being workers or just being part-time workers is extremely problematic in a variety of ways.

Personally, I’m an instructor of record, which means that at Columbia I teach my entire class and I do not work with a professor. I’m not a teaching assistant. I do everything. So I teach all my classes, plan them, grade all the assignments. I do everything myself, and Columbia still tells me that my work is not important or that I am a part-time worker when I’m literally doing the work of a lecturer or of a professor depending on the course that I’m teaching. So this is not about just me getting a fair wage, which is of course extremely important, but it’s about being recognized for the work that we do.

And that’s why withholding our labor from the university is our strongest point right now, because now they’re forced to see the importance of the work that we do every day and how students may not get the credits that they have to get for their classes if we’re not teaching their classes and how that impacts the whole structure of the university. So I think it’s very important to consider the issue of full recognition in relation to all the other issues that are the main points of our contract.

Joanna:              Yeah, I just wanted to add on the recognition point. The thing that Columbia’s really trying to do is exclude casual workers from our unit, casual, undergrad, masters, and PhD workers from our unit. And this is actually a way for them to undermine our labor power, because I can see this being a strategy in the long run for the university to casualize all of us so that we are excluded from the union and we no longer get those benefits. And a lot of that speaks I think to this trend of casualization in higher education where they’re starting to turn… There are already, tenure is almost a thing of the past. Contracts are getting shorter, there’s the adjunctification of higher ed where everything is taught by adjuncts.

And I think that’s going to happen to PhD workers as well, where even though we’re in a program they’re going to start moving us towards these hourly roles. And that’s why it’s so important for us to continue fighting for recognition of casual workers in our union because we need to say they do the same labor, they deserve the same protections, they deserve the same benefits. And we cannot create a tiered system where the university can start making some of us casual so that we are basically second-rate workers with less protections.

Maximillian Alvarez:    And I won’t rehash the whole history here, I feel like we’ve done it on a past episode. Might have been a bonus episode, but listeners know we did cover and have covered a lot of labor struggles in academia before. And in one of those conversations I remember trying to navigate the flip flopping in U.S. labor law when it comes to whether or not student workers, graduate student workers are workers. And I think it was a Columbia-based ruling in the beginning of the 21st century that said graduate students are not workers. And I think the rationale was like, sure, they do some work, but their primary relationship to the university is as a student and that’s not counted as a worker. Then that was reversed where a new, I think NLRB ruling, was like, well, it doesn’t fucking matter the other stuff that they do. If the relationship to the university is that of an employer/employee relationship, if your pay is dependent on someone telling you what to do, when to do it, so on and so forth, that is an employer/employee relationship, thus, you have the right to unionize.

Then I think Trump’s NLRB reversed that, then it got flipped over again in 2020. So there’s been a lot of back and forth about this. So for folks who may still have of that pent up snobbery about whether or not graduate students are students are workers, whether or not academic workers or workers, ask yourself why is the NLRB so fucking invested in coming up with different answers to this question. And see yourself more in solidarity with your fellow workers than trying to divide yourselves into different segments. Anyway, won’t go on a rant there, but this is all super helpful, super important, and super meaningful. That like your union siblings over there at John Deere and on other strikes that have been happening around the country, we’ve seen a lot of emphasis on fighting back against two-tier wage systems and even three-tier wage systems if you’ve got old-timer legacy union workers. Then you’ve got the second tier of lower paid workers who have fewer retirement and healthcare benefits, then you have fucking temps like I used to be who are making less than that.

So you have a bunch of people in the same workplace, in this case Columbia University, doing a lot of similar labor getting paid drastically different amounts, even depending on what department you’re in. And so there are really important reasons for why workers should band together and try to… Instead of just securing your own privileges when you can and running away to our little squirrel holes, to try to band together, fight together and lift the floor for everyone. And that’s a cause that everyone listening to this should obviously support. And I wanted to by way of, I guess, rounding out, ask y’all if we could talk a bit about where things are now, what the university’s response to the strike has been, and then we’ll wrap up by asking what listeners can do to show solidarity.

Joanna:          So I think the university is panicking. They try to act like they’re not. And I think Columbia’s strategy so far has been to try to wait us out. They have, however, I think started to meet us more and also moved into a mediation process to try to find a settlement with us, which has been quite helpful. And the university did make some movement on some of our demands around non-discrimination and harassment. So one of the things that they did offer, which was really helpful, was transitional funding. So this was a proposal that we made where we wanted an option for people who felt that they were in an unhealthy relationship with an advisor to be able to get transitional funding if they were trying to switch advisors. So if you found yourself in a kind of abusive relationship or bullying relationship, you can switch advisors and also still get your wages basically for that semester or your funding for that semester.

And that provides some security because a lot of people in the midst of switching advisors find themselves in this sudden limbo space of, I don’t know if I’m going to be paid, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do work. So we have that proposal from the university as a result, I think, of our strike. We’re having a really major bargaining session happening on Wednesday with the mediator. It’s a joint session with Columbia. We’re really excited to see what that brings. But Columbia has been really intransigent and stubborn. And unfortunately for them, so are we. We’re not going to go off strike until our demands are met.

So Columbia doesn’t have many weeks left of the semester. If they want to salvage the semester for students, they’re going to have to give in to our demands soon. And then we can talk about how we can go back to work, how we can make sure our students are fine, et cetera, et cetera. But until they give into our demands, that’s just not going to happen. So good luck, Columbia.

Caroline:               Yeah. I’ll also add that this strike is so much harder this time around. So in the spring, Columbia… So most people are paid in two ways. It partially comes from a stipend, a lump sum at the beginning of the semester, and then biweekly payments. And the thinking is that, again, this is Columbia talking out of both sides of its mouth, that the stipend is not necessarily related to the teaching work, it’s just for being a student. And then the biweekly payments are for teaching or research assistant work. This semester, Columbia unilaterally withheld our stipends, so we only got a fraction of it at the beginning of the semester, which was pretty disastrous for a lot of people. And this was definitely a move to already prevent people from striking ahead of time. And they’ve also withheld stipends in biweekly payment. So we are entering the fifth week of our strike. We cannot pay rent, we cannot eat, essentially. We are in dire straits, but the remarkable thing is people are continuing to stay on strike.

There’s more energy, there’s more fire, and our heels are dug in. It’s just this really, really amazing position that we’re in. I think there’s so much, at least internally, a conviction in what we’re doing that we’re willing to take these incredible financial hits to risk a lot. And a lot of us, myself I’m in Columbia housing, Columbia is my landlord and my employer, but we’re doing this because we believe in it and it has to happen. So one of the ways people can help is by contributing to our hardship fund. You can find us on Open Collective, Student Workers of Columbia. You can find us on social media, and definitely retweet and like our posts. That’s all helpful.

Tamara:            Yes, absolutely. I’d just like to amplify this idea of our conviction this time around. I’ve said this before, but it’s amazing and it’s inspiring. I’m also at Columbia housing and I’m also an international student. So Columbia is my employer, they’re my landlord, and they’re also, my visa depends on them. And there’s so many international students like me who are out there on strike at the picket line every day. And I find that incredibly inspiring as well. I’m lucky to be in a department where a lot of people are involved and where, I’d like to say, more than 90% of the people, or yeah, almost everyone is international students. So seeing how much we’re risking is really an inspiring thing. And I’ve said this before, but at this point, I feel like we can’t afford not to be on strike because we know what’s at stake.

And we know that we are strong enough to continue on strike until our demands are met. And that is something that Columbia has tried to brush off to say to wait us out, but it’s not going to work this time around. I feel like this level of conviction that we have is not going to go away. And it’s beautiful to see how every week more people are showing up and getting involved. And just building this amazing community week after week, that’s become so much stronger. It’s a beautiful thing. So I’m very, very sure of our movement and I believe in it very much. So I think that, as I said before, seeing how much we have to lose, this is the time where we cannot back down and we’re not going to back down.

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Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
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