The New School University is one of Manhattan’s most storied progressive institutions. But don’t tell that to the people who work there. On March 11 several dozen students, labor organizers and faculty members gathered for a demonstration outside the Sheraton Hotel on 53rd Street, site of the annual La Guardia Award Dinner, a fundraising event hosted by the New School. Inside, New School president Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, hobnobbed with the likes of Paul Critchlow (vice chairman, Merrill Lynch) and George Mitchell, the newly appointed chairman of the board of Disney and recipient of the La Guardia Award. Outside, demonstrators handed out fliers calling on the New School to “Quit Mickey Mousing Around” and recognize the right of adjunct faculty members to form a union.

It’s a right you would think the New School would happily recognize, given that it was founded in 1919 by John Dewey, Charles Beard and other progressive thinkers and in the 1930s formed a “University in Exile” to offer refuge to scholars fleeing fascist Europe. Yet for the past year, the New School has persistently sought to undermine an organizing drive launched by its part-time instructors, who earn on average $2,700 per course, without benefits. Like their counterparts on an increasing number of campuses, they have begun to see themselves as part of America’s growing army of exploited temp workers and to view unions as a potential lever of change.

On March 5 the university went so far as to appeal the results of an election in which a majority of adjuncts voted to join the United Auto Workers (which represents faculty at NYU and several other universities). “The election…resulted in voter turnout so low as to make the ‘results’ impossible to treat as the authentic voice of the faculty,” explained Provost Arjun Appadurai. This was a curious statement, since voter turnout is not grounds for challenging the legitimacy of a union election–as the New School itself acknowledged before the vote. “Can NSU challenge an election if the number of actual voters is too small?” a list of Frequently Asked Questions on the university’s website inquired. “No,” the website flatly answered. Moreover, as the UAW points out, 1,043 of 1,602 eligible faculty voted, a proportion significantly higher (65 percent) than the 48 percent who voted in the 1994 contest that sent Bob Kerrey to the US Senate.

The administration argues that the election was poorly timed, taking place shortly after winter break. But to the extent that this is true, it is the university’s own fault: New School part-timers filed a request for a union election in March 2003. The university then delayed the process with a series of appeals. While the New School has raised many technical concerns about the unionization process, it has studiously avoided addressing the real issue: that it is an institution facing financial constraints and seeking to maximize its budget flexibility–and it does not want to be tethered to a union contract with its adjuncts.

As AFL-CIO president John Sweeney noted in a letter to Kerrey, corporations routinely engage in tactics such as repeated appeals in order to drain momentum from organizing drives. It’s for this reason that the AFL-CIO has been promoting the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would automatically certify unions as collective-bargaining agents once a majority of workers sign written authorization forms (this “card check” process would eliminate delays).

Adolph Reed, a political scientist at the New School, notes that despite its unique history, the university’s actions should not be viewed in isolation. “President Kerrey’s response to this campaign has been more worthy of the CEO of Wal-Mart than the president of a university, but it fits into a broader tapestry–the casualization of the academic labor force, the increasing prominence of corporate values in university governance.” Outside the Sheraton, the demonstrators seemed to understand this. Part-time faculty who are organizing at other schools, including Pace University, were on hand. So were New School students, who earlier presented Kerrey with 1,000 signatures from classmates who support the faculty’s right to organize. The students’ motto–“their teaching conditions are our learning conditions”–would have made the New School’s founders proud.