Dispatches: Divisions of Labor II

The strike of graduate students at NYU continues.  The single demand of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee remains unmet: that NYU negotiate with their union, as they did since 2001.   (Once again, discloure: I am a member of GSOC, and striking.)  Currently the single most important labor struggle in the nation involving university teaching, the issue has attracted great amounts of coverage lately, and I believe that those interested in the current state of U.S. universities would do well to pay attention. 

In a previous piece, I summarized the trajectory of disagreement that brought graduate students to the decision to strike.  Here, I’d like to provide an account of the situation at the arrival of a critical juncture.  Tomorrow marks NYU President John Sexton’s ‘deadline’ by which graduate assistants must return to work.  As a carrot, Sexton offers those who return non-union contracts guaranteeing the continuation of the gains and benefits that, ironically, were previously procured by the union (yearly salary increases, health coverage, etc.).

But the sticks are many.  By email, Sexton threatened students who choose not to scab tomorrow with the removal of both their ‘stipends’ (pay) and their spring ‘teaching eligibility’ (jobs)–the disaggregation of the two things being a rhetorical strategy meant to preserve the fiction that the stipends do not represent payment for teaching labor, despite the fact that they are disbursed to graduate teachers in the form of paychecks with taxes and social security withheld.  Of course, despite the fictive bureaucratese, firing workers for striking is illegal and generally considered a vile form of strike-breaking.  In practice it puts NYU’s graduate students in the position of almost all strikers – i.e. without pay. 

Still, it is unclear whether such a threat can be enforced, as many departments have enacted resolutions not to replace each other’s labor, leaving a very real question as to where hundreds of qualified scabs can be found.  In addition, Sexton’s email holds that students who return must pledge not to resume striking their labor, or risk losing an additional year of teaching.  Here again the response of the academic community has been one of outrage: compelling students to sign away their right to protest does not exactly smack of the vaunted ‘academic freedom’ that universities claim to defend. 

In strategic terms, NYU’s actions over the month of the strike have further inflamed many graduate students, and this current ultimatum exacerbates the trend.  No one likes to be intimidated.  As well, it has provoked faculty outrage, not least because the threats erode the faculty’s traditional autonomy when it comes to teaching assignments as well as choosing to censure particular students.  Many chairs and directors of graduate studies are simply refusing to comply with the order from the provost to reassign spring teaching in accordance with the threats.  And the labor movement in New York city has been engaged by the struggle, with Manhattan’s president saying that NYU’s actions have embarrassed the borough, and several City Council members proclaiming that NYU will receive no cooperation on land-use review until they recognize the union.  Although faculty and tertiary support are invaluable, the fate of the union will be determined by the size of the disruption caused by strikers, from which all other support will flow.  However, even were the strike to be ended without a contract, the fairly frightening glimpse into the workings of high-level university administration will have been instructive and induced radicalism in many.

To step back, the philosophical question here is quite a simple one: are graduate students workers, and thus deserve the right to unionize?  Where political discourse is concerned, the Clinton-era National Labor Relations Board held that they were, while the George W. Bush-era board did not.  No surprise there, and the decision is not binding.  But let me offer a counterexample to the view that graduate students are not workers: the fact is, they already are classed as workers at many universities, including all the SUNY schools as well as Rutgers.  The only difference is that these universities are public.  Is there, then, any significance to the distinction between public and private-university graduate students?

I don’t believe that a distinction germane to this issue can be made.  Certainly the argument that unions erode collegiality and interfere with internal academic affairs can be dispelled by a glance at Rutgers, where graduate students have been unionized since 1972 without incident.  It is also very difficult to deny that working conditions at NYU have improved since unionization.  In 2000, students in the English department were paid 12,000 dollars for teaching four classes or discussion sections, with no health benefits.  Today, compensation for the same workload is 19,000 dollars plus health coverage.  Better working conditions make for better teaching; thus the undergraduates are better served by the union as well.  Either we should have a union, or Rutgers shouldn’t.  You make the call.  If you make the one I think you will, come picket with us this morning.


Divisions of Labor I
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