NYU’s Poison Ivy Itch

NYU’s Poison Ivy Itch

When one of New York’s biggest and most liberal institutions gets into the business of union-busting, it’s hardly an internal matter.


The public sidewalk in front of NYU’s Bobst Library has hosted many protests, but the August 31 rally in support of the graduate teaching assistants union (GSOC-UAW) was especially well crafted. The protesters (more than 1,000 strong) had come to vent at the NYU administration’s self-serving use of an antilabor ruling by Bush’s NLRB to deep-six the union. Their rage was also fueled by the cynical timing of the NYU announcement–during the still of the summer recess–and by the dearth of any serious consultation with faculty, staff or students over the decision. The rally itself was capped by the spectacle of some of the labor movement’s top people being cuffed by the NYPD for blocking the entrance to Bobst, which houses the offices of the university’s senior officials. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor, UAW secretary-treasurer Elizabeth Bunn and a bevy of ranking regional officers from the UAW joined several high-profile New York City and state politicians and more than seventy graduate students from NYU, Columbia and Yale inside the paddy wagons. Faculty, students and trade unionists from all over the metro region were there to cheer them on.

The overall message was loud and clear: This was the start of a very public campaign. When one of New York’s biggest and most liberal institutions gets into the business of unionbusting, it is hardly an internal matter. Communities all over the city have a rightful stake in this decision, and local politicians were quick to warn NYU administrators that there would be consequences. In a punitive response, the City Council has already denied some of NYU’s customary annual requests for special dispensations.

But it was the presence of labor’s big guns from Detroit and Washington that confirmed the national significance of the NYU face-off. Coming so soon after the schismatic AFL-CIO convention, it might be tempting to interpret their presence as a strenuous effort to show that the organization had not missed a beat (nor could it be ignored that the UAW affiliation of the students was far removed from the “core industry” model favored by the breakaway Change to Win Coalition). To some ears, at least, Sweeney’s pledge of undying support to a group of graduate students from all his organization’s affiliates sounded hyperbolic. Yet there were good reasons why NYU has become a focus of high-level attention.

GSOC was the first graduate union to win recognition at a private university, and its four-year contract, which ended August 31, was widely viewed as the beachhead for labor’s advance on a hitherto unapproachable white-collar sector. As organizing drives picked up at Brown, Columbia and Yale, the Ivies looked to Bush appointees on the NLRB to reverse a 2000 ruling that NYU graduate assistants were “employees” with the right to organize. They got what they wanted in summer 2004 with a decision against Brown students, and the heat was on NYU to play along. In meetings earlier this year with both the graduate student council and city officials, NYU president John Sexton acknowledged that he had been “getting pressure from other universities.” There was little doubt where the pressure was coming from. NYU has been upwardly mobile in the last decade, and its executives are eager for acceptance among the varsity elite. But it lacks a ruling-class pedigree and, some old hands would say, the unyielding backbone that comes with it. On the last three occasions that unions at NYU have threatened strikes (clerical employees, adjunct faculty and the embryonic GSOC), the administration has caved in and negotiated contracts. We may see a similar scenario this fall, though it will probably take a prolonged GSOC strike and a steady barrage of public pressure to make that happen. Such actions will be well supported by the faculty, a clear majority of whom have backed the union in widely circulated petitions and letters of dissent against the positions taken by the university leadership.

If the NYU administration backs down and restores the contract, it will be stepping outside the legal orbit of the NLRB. Not only will this be a great victory for the cause of organizing in the academic ranks, it will also be a pregnant development for the labor movement. Even at the best of times, working through the NLRB is a chronically frustrating process that many labor advocates would like to circumvent. Indeed, it is becoming respectable in some quarters to argue that organizing should simply disregard the NLRB process–too lengthy, too obstacle-ridden and too insulting to anyone’s sense of self-representation or the democratic process. The UAW’s Bunn was quick to point out that “there were labor unions long before there was an NLRB.” The GSOC struggle will be a test case, in academe, for the kind of strategy that forward-looking unions have been pioneering in other sectors. NYU, after all, is a weak pressure point because it is not exactly (or not yet) a corporate-style employer. As Sweeney put it in his speech at the rally, the unionbuster here is not “a corporate criminal with no ethics but an institution that shares our own values, or has done so in the past.” If those values have any hope of being reasserted at universities like NYU, then administrators and trustees will have to be forcefully reminded of the fragile, but intuitive, fraternity between the lecture hall and the union hall.

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