Dispatches: Divisions of Labor

This Wednesday, graduate students at New York University will begin a strike with the intention of forcing NYU’s administration to bargain with their chosen collective agent, the union UAW/Local 2110.  (Full disclosure: I am one such, and will be participating in this action.)  This situation has been brewing for months, as the union’s contract with NYU, dating to 2001, expired in August.  That contract was something of a historic event, since it recognized the right to unionize of graduate students at a private university, for the first time in U.S. history.  That decision was helped along by a (non-binding) arbitration by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that NYU graduate students were workers in addition to being students.  Owing to turnover in the Board, however, and the Bush administration’s appointment of anti-labor replacement members, the Board has since reversed its precedent-setting decision in reference to a similar dispute at Brown University.  Though this is not a binding decision, and NYU is under no compulsion to derecognize its graduate student union, this is exactly what it has done, albeit while attempting to produce the impression that they tried and failed to come to an agreement. 

In actuality, the administration did not come to the bargaining table until August, at which point they issued a ultimatum to the graduate student union, insisting that they agree to a severely limited ‘final offer’ in forty-eight hours.  Made in bad faith, this offer was of course rejected, as it would have been impossible even to organize a vote of union members in the span allotted.  But it did allow President John Sexton and his administration to claim to have made an offer and been refused, which they have lost no opportunity to repeat in a series of inflammatory emails and letters to the student community.  Last week, in the wake of the union’s announcement that members had voted by approximately eighty-five to fifteen percent in favor of striking, the university administration sent yet another such communique, this time from Provost David McLaughlin, with the subject line ‘UAW votes to disrupt classes.’  Strategically, the administration seems to believe that by avoiding all reference to graduate students, and instead identifying the source of ‘trouble’ as ‘Auto Workers,’ the undergraduates and larger community might be convinced that the strike is simply the deluded power grab of a few dissatisfied individuals in league with an extraneous group.  Yet the transparency of the university’s rhetoric has had the opposite effect: undergraduates and faculty alike have been radicalized in support of graduate students.  My own students, for instance, have been extremely understanding, comprehending perfectly that graduate students’ teaching, for which a paycheck is received, tax and social security having been withheld, is work.

Politics, it is said, makes curious bedfellows.  One such pairing has occurred as a result of the current NYU situation.  The physicist Alan Sokal is best known for his 1996 article, published in Social Text, attempting to expose the spurious nature of references to math and science in the work of high theorists such as Derrida and Lacan.  His article, which purported to demonstrate twentieth-century physics’ confirmation of the anti-realism of post-structuralist theory, was duly accepted and published in a special issue of the journal on ‘Science Wars.’  After his revelation that the article was a ‘hoax,’ a small repeat of the two cultures conflagration ensued.  Responses abounded, including a rebuttal from Andrew Ross, professor of American Studies at NYU and the co-editor of the issue.  The entire episode has received its most detailed accounting and most rigorous intellectual genealogy (tracing the roots of this debate back to the development of logical positivism) in an article by yet another NYU professor, John Guillory.  That piece, ‘The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism,’ is well worth reading, not least for its clarification that the stakes in the two cultures debate are not necessarily related to one’s position vis-a-vis ‘postmodernism’ or cultural studies, which, as Guillory convincingly demonstrates, has no fixed relation to particular political stances.  The current labor strife at NYU reconfirms this analysis, as Sokal and Ross find themselves on the same side of the barricades as members of Faculty Democracy, the faculty organization urging the NYU administration to bargain with the graduate student union.

Sokal has written this clear-eyed summary (to which Robin previously linked) of the issues involved, and his commonsensical tone is a much-appreciated palliative in the midst of rhetorically overheated statements issuing from many quarters.  Perhaps most importantly (and most ironically for someone who has been lambasted as an ‘unreconstructed’ leftist), Sokal points out that the paternalism of the administration’s position should be rejected.  Whether or not one considers the graduate students to be right in their cause, he points out, their democratically decided resolution to collectivize in order to negotiate contracts should be respected.  Sokal’s distaste for the increasingly rapid transformation of the university into an institutional substitute for parental duties (and a remedial solution to the decrepitude of public high school education) is one I share.  I would add that the current impasse is more a matter of structural conflict than of political sympathy.  Private universities as they exist today depend on a pyramidal structure: a large number of graduate students at the bottom of the labor force are needed to perform much of undergraduate teaching, while at the top of the pyramid are ever fewer tenured faculty.  Even these can be further divided into ‘stars’ who command greatly disproportionate income while having few teaching responsibilities, and the lower order of adjunct professors who perform much of the remedial education in such subjects as composition.  This system necessarily produces many more credentialed Ph.D.’s than the labor market can employ at the higher levels, which in turn means that many graduate students spend years teaching for a pittance without making it to the security of a tenured position.  Hence the pressure on this beleaguered strata to unionize, so as to ensure a modicum of stability of salary and benefits. 

Though they are a transient class, passing through degree programs, as opposed to a permanent workforce, graduate students have thus come to bear a very large portion of the daily labor of teaching undergraduates.  Interestingly, what the commotion about this strike has appeared to ignite at NYU is a debate about collectivism.  While many are fully willing to grant a certain ethical status to the picket line, and so defer to the right to strike that has been the hallmark victory of the labor movement, the union’s opponents (be they faculty or students) tend to retreat to personal responsibility as the ground on which to base such decisions.  Thus does American individualism reappear in the debate, as usual licensing those for whom ethical imperatives are always imposed from without, rather than perceived from within.  Combined with the detached, analytical impulse that intellectual work requires, this produces a strong ideological propensity for members of this particular class of workers to dissent from counting themselves as part of a collective organization, with the exception, of course, of their belonging to the university itself.  Membership in the university, however, is mystified by the institution’s self-image as the social location outside of or beyond corporate culture and other more baldly hierarchical sites of work.  That the intellectual and editorial freedom that the university trumpets as its role to protect might conflict with the conditions under which that freedom is maintained is a paradox that remains all too often unclear to the participants in this debate.  Whether the temptation to fall back on just this founding myth of the university will prove to be the union movement’s undoing, we shall discover in the days and weeks ahead.


Local Catch
Where I’m Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence