NYU–No More Ivory Tower

NYU–No More Ivory Tower

New York City


New York City

Scott Sherman’s “Bitter Winter at NYU” [Jan. 9/16] is not only poor reporting, it is so one-sided as to be irresponsible. He paints New York University president John Sexton as the bad guy in ad hominem terms. With few exceptions, he quotes only those who support the strike and ignores important aspects of NYU’s November 28 statement on the strike. Sherman cites union estimates that from 150 to 200 graduate assistants are on strike but fails to mention that that is only about 10 percent of such students.

Sherman ignores the fact that the long missive he describes by quoting a local newspaper’s anti-NYU editorial as a “frighteningly blunt ultimatum” actually told striking graduate students that they would retain both their scholarships and their health coverage. It also indicated that those who refused to return to their teaching duties would not receive stipends for the spring semester. The stipends are $18,000 per year. I am not aware of any persons on strike who expect to continue receiving their salaries while they walk the picket lines. The strike is disrupting NYU, and it is doing great harm to students, who are not being taught, or tutored, or counseled by those who are on strike.

Sherman suggests that NYU backed out on the union agreement when the NLRB changed an earlier decision that graduate students were employees and entitled to organize. He ignores easily obtainable information that NYU’s decision not to agree to a new contract was based on continuing union violations of the provisions of the 2001 collective bargaining agreement providing that “decisions regarding who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching involves academic judgment and shall be made at the sole discretion of the University.” UAW brought a series of grievances to arbitration that flew in the face of its commitment. They lost all these challenges, but each diverted time and attention away from other matters and, according to university officials, severely undermined confidence in the union’s noninterference commitment.

Nation readers, including this subscriber, are mainly pro-union and might well side with the graduate student strike after hearing all the facts. The Sherman article denied them these facts, thereby doing a disservice to Nation readers and to this publication.

Visiting professor, NYU Law School

Newark, Dela.

As the voice of the higher education profession and leading advocate for the highest academic standards, the American Association of University Professors deplores the actions of the NYU administration in severing bargaining relations with its graduate student union and threatening draconian punishments for those graduate employees who remain on strike.

The administration claims that its decision was based in part on the premise that allowing teaching assistants to have bargaining rights jeopardizes the traditional roles of professor and student, because the TAs will be placed in an adversarial relationship with their faculty mentors. However, a clear majority of NYU faculty supports the TAs. The NYU chapter of AAUP has organized an initiative called Faculty Democracy to oppose the administration’s action. More than 200 faculty members are active participants in that effort and have declared their support for the graduate student employees’ decision to strike. It is both disingenuous and risible to assert that the mentoring relationship is harmed by good faith negotiations about salaries, benefits and access to fair grievance procedures.

It would appear that the decision to sever ties with the union was motivated by a cynical desire to exploit the graduate teaching assistants. GAs lecture, grade papers and monitor examinations–in other words, they perform the teaching duties of a professor. They may join AAUP with full voting rights and the right to hold office at every level of the organization. The AAUP’s “Statement on Graduate Students” asserts, in part, that “graduate student assistants, like other campus employees, should have the right to organize to bargain collectively” and “must not suffer retaliation from professors or administrators because of their activity relating to collective bargaining.”

We condemn the retaliatory actions taken by the NYU administration against the strikers, which have had a chilling effect on the academic climate. We will continue to support the GAs in their efforts.

President, American Association of University Professors

New York City

According to the recently formed adjunct union, some 75 percent of classes at NYU are taught by adjuncts and graduate students, to reduce personnel costs. During the contract with the union, the number of fully funded graduate assistant positions fell from 1,300 to around 1,000, according to GSOC/UAW Local 2110. When the administration complains that Local 2110 interfered with “academic decision making,” it was referring to union grievances about the administration’s employing more adjuncts. In one case graduate students from Columbia University, rather than NYU, were hired. What NYU calls the “enterprise university” actually means outsourcing education to the lowest bidder.

Professor, New York University

New York City

We appreciate Scott Sherman’s reporting on the GA strike. “Bitter Winter at NYU” indeed: Graduate assistants walk the frigid picket lines to insist on their democratic right to union representation while the administration, led by a president appointed without customary search procedures, issues unprecedented threats of reprisal against some of the university’s most promising young scholars. The faculty, meanwhile, awakened to its own marginalization in the decision-making processes, attempts to organize itself around core principles of democratic governance. Our students, in their fight to retain the union they won in 2000 through legitimate democratic elections, have exposed this administration’s flagrant disregard for academic freedom and shared governance of the university.

A dispassionate examination of the record would indicate that it is not the union, in its four years of existence, that has encroached on academic freedom. It is the president, the provost and the University Leadership Team–whose unionbusting actions have included electronic eavesdropping on courses and unilaterally stripping departments of effective control over course staffing and even over grading procedures–who have been the real enemies of academic freedom. The university as a community that attempts to put into practice the lofty democratic ideals taught in its classrooms has been sadly transformed, not by the union or the graduate assistants but by the administration, which from the very beginning eschewed democratic procedures and proceeded down the road of unilateralism. The fractured situation at NYU is actually worse than Sherman imagines. The administration should negotiate with the union immediately.

On behalf of 26 NYU faculty

New York City

It isn’t surprising that NYU’s administration wants to make decisions without having to bargain with a union. What is surprising is the extent to which NYU administrators, many of whom are scholars and professed liberals, are willing to compromise their intellectual integrity in support of their goal.

In 2000 the NLRB issued a unanimous decision granting graduate assistants at private universities, including NYU, the right to unionize. This bipartisan decision harmonized federal law with that of most states, which allow GAs at public universities to form unions. The NLRB found that because GAs provide services for NYU for which they are compensated, they are employees.

In 2004 a newly constituted NLRB, dominated by Republicans who have built their careers attacking unions, overturned that decision in a case involving GAs at Brown University. The Brown decision, poorly reasoned and intellectually dishonest, is part of the radical right’s antilabor campaign, which has eviscerated labor protections and reduced the number of workers shielded by the few safeguards that remain.

This Republican position, adopted by NYU, is based on several faulty premises, one of which is that teaching performed by GAs isn’t real work; it’s part of their academic program. Even NYU doesn’t believe this. Tellingly, striking GAs haven’t been threatened with expulsion from their academic programs for refusing to teach; they have been told that they won’t be paid. At most universities GAs provide 30 to 50 percent of all instruction. At NYU they teach all freshman English composition courses, the overwhelming majority of language courses, other core undergraduate requirements and discussion and laboratory sections associated with large lecture classes. Courses are assigned based on NYU’s instructional needs, not the pedagogical needs of the GAs. NYU receives full tuition for all GA-taught courses. It may be true, as NYU and the NLRB maintain, that teaching experience prepares graduate students for (the ever-shrinking number of) jobs in academia. But many jobs, in many fields, impart skills that allow for future advancement. In other fields this doesn’t eliminate labor rights.

Another faulty premise is that GAs shouldn’t be allowed to unionize because they are primarily students. It’s absurd to argue that because a worker is also other things her rights as a worker are dispensable. Federal labor law doesn’t exclude from its protections part-time workers who fulfill other roles.

Finally, NYU claims that bargaining threatens academic freedom. But academic workers organizing to defend their interests, and to compel administrators to consider their needs, is a bulwark of academic freedom. The real threat is from administrators intent on concentrating all decision-making in their own hands.

Attorneys for the GAs’ union

Washington, DC

NYU has turned the clock back on democracy and workers’ rights. That’s quite a serious transgression, especially coming from a university that sees itself as “sanctuary.”

President John Sexton may be popular with large-donor fundraisers and his Ivy League colleagues who want to stop workers from having a voice on the job and a union contract. If he were smart, however, he’d listen more carefully to faculty members and others who have made it clear that his tactics are disgraceful and damaging to the reputation of the university.

Instead, Sexton is following the corporate management playbook to the letter–by threatening students with an ultimatum that they end their strike or be fired. That’s all too familiar to workers across America forced to pay a price every day for rights that are now better protected in Taiwan, South Africa and Brazil.

On December 10, International Human Rights Day, US workers and allies rallied in 100 cities, and were joined by activists from China to Europe, to make the case that bargaining rights and democracy are inextricably linked. In the weeks ahead Sexton will realize that the movement for true democracy is alive and well at NYU. Graduate student workers across the country must see NYU’s action as both the disgrace it is and the wake-up call that student workers everywhere need in order to restore their workplace rights. The rest of us must stand up and support them.

The Communications Workers of America fully supports the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and the UAW at NYU. We stand with graduate student workers everywhere who want to exercise their basic democratic rights.

LARRY COHEN, president,
Communications Workers of America

Brooklyn, NY

Our first contract raised our stipends by an average of 40 percent and provided employer-paid healthcare and training for NYU graduate assistants. Members of GSOC/UAW Local 2110 as well as NYU undergraduates, faculty and even administrators have attested that our contract has made us better at our jobs and has made NYU a better university. The reaction of John Sexton and the NYU administration to our strike has only underscored why we need a second contract.

Chair, GSOC/UAW Local 2110
PhD candidate, NYU

Ithaca, NY

As one of the nation’s leading experts in organizing under the NLRB, I have analyzed tens of thousands of NLRB election campaigns. NYU’s campaign against its graduate students stands out to me because it represents a non-profit institution that seems to have forgotten that it is in the business of higher education. It is making major employment decisions that will have a lasting impact on the quality of education of its undergraduate student body based solely on its own antiunion animus and the antiunion animus of the consortium of other universities that have joined NYU in the fight against the right of graduate students to engage in collective bargaining.

This means that instead of choosing TAs based on their expertise, teaching ability or experience, the sole criterion determining whether a graduate student will be teaching at NYU this spring is, Did he/she participate in the strike? Suddenly the business of the university has become strikebreaking and unionbusting, not education.

But that is the least of the tragedy. A lifetime ago, it seems, there was a notion of PhD students as apprentices, learning at the knee of the greatest scholars, who worked side by side with them, teaching them their trade, mentoring them. Graduate students were assigned to faculty in their field and were trained, supervised, evaluated and mentored, and they advanced with a guarantee of a professorship upon completion of their degree.

But for at least a quarter-century, graduate students have increasingly been doing more of the work while fewer tenure-track lines are being added. Graduate TAs are assigned classes based on department needs, given minimal training and supervision, rarely mentored and rarely teach the subject they actually plan to teach. And unfortunately, few are guaranteed a job upon completion of their degree. Instead of an educational opportunity, their teaching is the primary means through which they support themselves while going to graduate school. It is a job. One with long hours, low pay and limited benefits, but a job just the same–one that fits any definition of employee that the framers of the National Labor Relations Act had in mind.

Yes, Bush’s hand-picked NLRB overturned the ruling granting graduate students at NYU the right to organize, but the tides will shift again, and eventually no one will be able to deny the truth. Graduate students are workers; they are doing the work of universities when they are acting as teaching assistants. Universities are not teaching GAs how to be professors; GAs are making the machinery of the university work, and they are critical to the ability of universities to remain financially solvent. If graduate assistants did not exist, universities would have to hire adjunct faculty to take their place–or go back to hiring more tenure-track faculty. They can be replaced only with other employees because they are employees. It is time for NYU to start making decisions based on what is best for its students.

Director of Labor Education Research, Cornell University


Brooklyn, NY

Derrick Bell’s letter is a pitch-perfect recitation of the official NYU position, and his missive bears a close resemblance to the university’s press releases relating to the GSOC/UAW strike. Bell stamps my piece “one-sided.” But I carefully reported both sides of this story. I had extensive telephone and e-mail contact with NYU spokesman John Beckman, and I very much wanted to include the voice of President Sexton, but he declined to be interviewed. My article arrived at a conclusion Bell doesn’t like; but that does not automatically make it one-sided.

Bell proclaims that “about 10 percent” of NYU’s graduate assistants are on strike. But how can he be certain? Alas, the union won’t say how many GAs are striking (although it does affirm that more than 700 GSOC members voted to strike), and NYU itself probably doesn’t have an exact number either, since certain departments where GSOC is strong have refused to pass along that information to the NYU administration.

As I noted in the article, which was hardly “ad hominem,” talks between NYU and GSOC/UAW broke down because NYU insisted on an open shop along with a grievance procedure that did not entail binding arbitration. An August 2, 2005, letter from Terrance Nolan, NYU’s director of labor relations, to Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, put forth NYU’s “final proposal” for a contract: “In the new agreement,” Nolan wrote, “there will be no provision for arbitration. All grievances and disputes under the Agreement will be fully and finally decided by the Provost of the University or his/her designee.” Bunn replied on August 4: “A key component to every contract,” she wrote, “is a fair and neutral dispute resolution procedure…. Yet, you are proposing that the University decides in every case whether the University has violated the agreement. Such a notion is simply inconsistent with the concept of having a meaningful contract.” The contract expired August 31.

In justifying its hard-line attitude, NYU has recently insisted, as does Bell in his letter, that GSOC/UAW interfered with academic decision-making and thereby abused the grievance process. “In 2001,” Sexton wrote in an October 21 letter to parents of NYU students, the university “signed a contract with the UAW…because we received written assurances from the UAW that it would not seek to interfere with academic decision-making. Unfortunately, the Union did not keep its promise.”

One should treat this assertion with skepticism. During the four-year contract, there were approximately fifty grievances involving NYU and GSOC/UAW. NYU has released details concerning three of them. Space constraints prevent me from delving into these cases, none of which can be quickly summarized, but I refer interested readers to a November 3 essay by NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, in which he provides a detailed critique of two grievances (see “Some Thoughts on the Unionization of Graduate Assistants” at www.facultydemocracy.org). Sokal, who argues that neither side was clearly in the right, insists nevertheless that NYU’s public characterization of the grievances as purely “academic matters” and “not about economics” is a “gross oversimplification.”

Many observers at NYU view the administration’s “academic interference” argument as empty rhetoric that serves to conceal a deep hostility to unions in general and the UAW in particular. Sokal captures this point well in his essay: “The issue is not whether unionization of grad students is good for the grad students, or good for the university,” he writes. “The sole issue is whether the graduate assistants…should be allowed to bargain collectively with the University.” He concludes: “The University Administration adamantly opposes such collective representation irrespective of whether 51% or 67% or 99% of the grad students desire it. This has been their consistent position ever since the students’ organizing drive began in the mid-1990s. In the late 1990s they spent several million dollars of the University’s money (the precise figure has never been made public) on anti-union lawyers in a failed effort to prevent a representation election. They relented on their no-union position only during the brief period (2001-05) when federal law forced them to.”


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