Dispatches: Divisions of Labor III

Strikes have engulfed New York City this winter. While members of the Transit Workers Union have gone back to work, NYU graduate assistants are preparing to resume picketing with the start of term on January 17th (usual disclaimer: me too). The situation is simultaneously encouraging and grim. Administrative threats of three semesters’ loss of work and pay have caused some attrition, but, impressively, have not broken the strike. By comparison, the 1995-6 Yale grade strike ended after threats of a similar variety – perhaps having already had union recognition and a contract has made the NYU graduate assistants more optimistic. Individual departments’ attempts to protect students from the severity of the administration’s punitive measures have mostly fallen short of extending any promises to those who continue picketing on the 17th. The climate, then, has become inhospitable to assistants who, for entirely legitimate reasons (among them, concerns over visa status, financial hardship, and impeded career advancement), no longer find enough certainty with respect to escaping potential reprisals. So far from signifying dissent from the union, however, these losses measure instead the level of vituperation with which the university sees fit to treat its members – the preservation of a ‘collegial’ relation to whom supposedly necessitates the union’s destruction. Here, rather than attempt an ethical adjudication (a perusal of the relevant documents will allow you to do that for yourself), I think it might be useful both to narrow and widen the usual perspective, which sees the university as the relevant object of focus, in order to consider some relevant internal differences as well as some external factors in this conflict. (For the basic dossier, see the Virtual Mind strike archive.)

To begin with, a narrower focus. Much discussion of late has had to do with the alleged concentration of strikers in the humanities and social sciences. Like many assertions in this debate, it usually remains unsubstantiated, circulating instead as a dark hint that the strike is the result of naive idealism. Consequently, NYU President John Sexton often describes graduate assistants in infantilizing terms,  reinforcing the idea that their grievances are an immature form of teenage rebellion. Furthermore, such infantilizing rhetoric carries with it the paternalistic notion that the university administration should be trusted to have its charges’ best interests at heart, even and especially when said charges are misbehaving. The longstanding association of the humanities with countercultural protest, amplified by the academic “culture wars,” in this case serves to delegitimize, and render strictly cultural, complaints of exploitation by graduate students. Strategically, then, this emphasis on the culture of protest over social analysis is a favored tactic of the administration and its supporters: as one anti-union philosophy professor put it on a weblog discussion of the strike, “if graduate students don’t want to be treated like spoiled children, they should stop behaving like spoiled children.” (Of course, the irony of this tautological ad hominem attack is that graduate assistants are attempting to dispute just this characterization of their position.)

Here I might return to the theme of “collegiality.” The picket line, with its chanting, drumming, singing – in short, its performativity – is by its nature often carnivalesque: not only the ordinary collegial etiquette, but the very habitus, or social and bodily disposition, of university life is suspended by it. The result is an unleashing of pent-up energies and frustrations of many kinds, including elements that exceed the basis of the conflict, such as the offensive nature of the university’s communications with graduate assistants. This is why the defense of collegiality has become an important high ground to the administration: harping on it allows the picket line’s symbolic excess to be depicted as a form of reactive immaturity. Paradoxically, immaturity is also seen to be a form of belatedness: Sexton’s euphemistic corporate terminology of an “Enterprise University” and “University Leadership Team” leaves no room such “dated” practices as strikes and protests, and the supposedly expired sixties radicalism from which they are thought to stem. Just as the domain of the humanities is linked to anachronistic countercultural protest, so then is the social practice of picketing. On both counts, we’re both too young and too old, past our sell-by date before we grow up. This argumentative tack, however, allows for the obfuscation of the original conflict. Even so, analyzed as a cultural form, the picket line performs an important function: it inscribes and instantiates the strike both to observers and in the minds and bodies of those striking. As Louis Althusser might have said, it “interpellates” (roughly, allows the self-recognition of) those who take part, and thus functions as a radicalizing action. Insofar as it refuses collegial dialogue and substitutes the implacable presence of the bodies of strikers, picketing only belongs more purely to the category of action.

Whatever the ideological hailing effects of picketing, if humanities students are strongly in support of striking, the true cause is not a nostalgic commitment to counterculture. The sociological facts on the ground, which are cleverly obscured by the strategy of infantilization, provide much more compelling justification. Unfortunately for the University Leadership Team’s propaganda efforts, graduate study these days tends to include discussion of the sociology of graduate education itself, which has become an important sub-field in literature departments. Doctoral students thus know all too well that fewer than half of them receive tenure track jobs within a year of receiving a diploma; that the number of non-tenured teachers continues to grow at a much faster rate than that of tenured faculty across the disciplines; that universities continue to rely on graduate and adjunct labor, while relatively fewer and fewer tenured professors enjoy the privilege of teaching only upper-level and graduate courses; that graduate assistants teach nearly all introductory courses in language and literature; and that collectivization is the rational response to the exploitation of a labor pool. These are not cultural differences between bohemian graduate students and technocratic administrators; they are social realities. And although these realities are not restricted to the language and literature programs – not at all – these departments have been affected very deeply by this macrocosmic shift in the structure of university teaching.

For this reason, which the “U.L.T.” knows as well as we do, a “New Policy” was announced in November by the university’s deans, which stipulates that graduate assistants’s normal teaching load of two stand-alone courses per semester will be reduced to one (this will primarily affect language and literature graduate assistants, as they teach most of the stand-alone courses). On the face of it, an early Christmas present, no doubt unrelated to the strike. In practice, however, it means three things: one, the university is suddenly authorizing itself to hire large numbers of new adjuncts to fill the newly vacated positions, in contradiction to its expressed aim of reducing the amount of contingent (adjunct) labor, without it looking like these are replacements for striking workers. Why, they’re simply being brought in to fill brand-new positions. The fact that these adjunct professors might conveniently be asked to substitute for striking workers is doubtless a coincidental side benefit. Second, it nourishes the university’s paternalist stance: reducing the teaching load strengthens their claim that graduate teaching is nothing more than apprenticeship or training, and that long-term shifts towards graduate and adjunct labor are being magically reversed. They really care! And third, most disturbingly, graduate assistants who choose to take on the heretofore normal load of two courses next semester can “bank” the extra course, and collect a free semester of funding in the fall. That’s right: teachers who strike this spring semester will lose their work and pay for the next three semesters, according to the Provost, whereas those who return to work and teach what until now was the standard two courses will receive a semester of free money. It might be supposed this will not foster a collegial atmosphere amongst teachers. Best of all, for the administration, this policy will primarily affect the language and literature programs, where students have a clear-eyed view of the labor issues involved because of their disciplinary location and thus strongly support the union. One is perversely impressed with shrewdness of this policy, although one is also sure that the law firm NYU employs to eradicate the union is more straightforwardly proud.

Finally, by way of briefly widening the focus beyond the institution of the university, let us consider NYU in a larger context. As this investigative piece in the Nation reveals, the MTA’s leadership has been engaged in a number of lucrative business dealings involving renting office space to its corporate sub-contractors. All this has been financed through public debt, and overseen by the presence on the MTA of the very people who stand to gain the most from such arrangements, but whose interest in public transportation is unclear. At NYU, the body with whom ultimate authority rests is the Board of Trustees (here is some background on its chair and vice-chairs). In an example of determination in the last instance by the economic sphere, to again allude to Louis Althusser, this board is populated by people with very different interests to those of university teachers. Comprised largely of financiers, corporate lawyers, real estate developers, and the leaders of media conglomerates, the board has shown very little interest in the sympathetic appeals of graduate assistants and our claim that the union palpably improved working and learning conditions at NYU. Of course, the commonly held conception of the university as the privileged space outside of the dominance of corporations in American society tends to disable the recognition that, in fact, universities reside within the sphere of economic determination, and are not necessarily any more amenable to arguments based on social justice than any other type of institution. The indifference of the board to the measurable benefits of unionized graduate assistants only reconfirms this. In fact, perhaps one can go so far as to postulate an inverse relation between the progressive prestige of a university and its hostility to a collectivized workforce: as evidence, one can adduce the immensely anti-union positions of the Ivy League schools. An ambitious school such as NYU is no doubt under immense pressure from the administrators of its more established siblings to resist precedent-setting unionization, and along the way absorb all the costs and bad publicity that accrue to union busting. Sadly, NYU seems more than happy to take one for the team it wishes to join, and thus to leave in place this inversion by which institutions who loudly condone progressive agendas in their publicity materials are the same ones who most viciously fight to prevent them from gaining any ground. A consolation: if we win, perhaps they will eventually realize that they have too.

Divisions of Labor II ( NYU Strike)
Divisions of Labor (NYU Strike)
The Thing Itself (Coffee)
Local Catch (Fishes)
Where I’m Coming From (JFK)
Optimism of the Will (Edward Said)
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick (Homosocial Comedies)
The Other Sweet Science (Tennis)
Rain in November (Downtown for Democracy)
Disaster! (Movies)
On Ethnic Food and People of Color (Worcestershire Sauce)
Aesthetics of Impermanence (Street Art)