Bitter Winter at NYU

(The Nation, January 9, 2006)

On November 28, three weeks after graduate teaching assistants at New York University walked out on strike, president John Sexton dispatched a long missive to the strikers. Buried in paragraph seventeen was an explosive piece of information: For those students who return to work by December 5, Sexton proclaimed, "there will be no consequences." And the fate of those who choose to stay on the picket line? Those "who do not resume their duties...will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach." (Most graduate assistants rely on stipends to cover their living expenses.)

Sexton's threat was greeted with much shock and outrage on the Greenwich Village campus. An editorial in the Washington Square News, a daily student newspaper, called it a "frighteningly blunt ultimatum." "The punishment that finally came down was far more extreme than I personally expected," said NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, who has supported the strikers. "It's totally unprecedented to say, Because you've been on strike for four weeks, you will therefore have the next semester--or two semesters--of your salary docked."

The roots of the NYU conflict, which now seems stalemated, go back to 2000, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled, in a historic decision, that graduate assistants at private universities were "employees" and thus entitled to union representation [see Andrew Ross, "NYU's Poison Ivy Itch," October 3, 2005].

Subsequently, NYU became the first private university in the nation to negotiate a contract with a graduate student union--in this case, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), affiliated with the United Auto Workers. That contract lifted stipends from around $10,000 to $18,000 a year, provided full health insurance coverage and allowed for paid sick leave and holidays. Last year, in a 3-to-2 ruling involving Brown University, the NLRB, newly stacked with Bush appointees, reversed its earlier position on graduate student unionization--which seems to have emboldened NYU to adopt a rigid stance toward GSOC, since it is no longer legally compelled to negotiate with the union.

Talks between NYU and the GSOC collapsed in August after the university gave GSOC forty-eight hours to accept a new contract, one that--in the words of an open letter signed by 209 NYU faculty members--"contradicted the very definition of what it means to be represented by a union." (Although other sources confirm this account, NYU spokesman John Beckman denies that there was an unwavering forty-eight-hour deadline.)

New York University, which insisted on an open shop and a grievance procedure that did not entail binding arbitration, decided, in Sexton's words, to "move ahead without the union." GSOC members voted to strike--not to achieve higher wages (NYU's current pay scale is roughly equal to that of the old union contract) but to affirm their right to unionize. "To walk away from the union contract," says Matthew Osypowski, a graduate student in creative writing who remains on strike, "would be a betrayal of those who fought for our first contract and those who will stand to inherit the benefits of the second."

It was undoubtedly Sexton's hope that his ultimatum would break the back of the union. His threat did, indeed, force an undetermined number of international students back to work, but not before dozens of them had unleashed their fury in a December 7 letter to the president: "We, as international students," they wrote, "feel especially vulnerable to your antagonizing, intimidating and outrageous threats...we condemn these threats as signaling a sharp decline in NYU's intellectual and ethical position in the academic and labor community." (Some GSOCers who returned to work have indicated that they will not serve as replacement labor for comrades who remain on the picket line during the spring semester.)

But a significant number of core union members have stayed on strike. The GSOC, which operates out of a UAW office near Union Square, won't reveal the exact number; it merely insists that "a majority" of its members are standing fast. Sources inside the GSOC estimate that somewhere between 150 and 200 graduate students are still striking, and that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the humanities and social sciences: primarily history, English, sociology, anthropology, American studies, Spanish and Portuguese, and music. The GSOC has little clout or faculty support in politics, math, economics, psychology or the sciences.

The current conflict is not merely a brawl between the NYU administration and GSOC/UAW. Faculty members, some of whom have moved their classes off campus to avoid crossing the picket line, have emerged as significant actors, at least in the humanities and social sciences. Twenty-three departments in four schools have passed neutrality resolutions, in which professors have pledged not to punish students who went out on strike. (Some departments, English and linguistics, for instance, have gone further, insisting that they will not reveal to the administration the names of GSOC students involved in the labor action.) For many professors, including those who are ambivalent about the idea of a graduate student union, the strike has brought to the surface not only longstanding concerns about the Sexton administration--which is viewed in many quarters as secretive, authoritarian and indifferent to faculty governance--but also larger issues pertaining to the corporatization of higher education.

In recent weeks a number of concerned faculty have floated "third way" proposals to end the strike. One proposal, signed by sociologists David Garland, Steven Lukes and Troy Duster, among others, called for the creation of a new graduate assistant representative body that would be empowered to handle GA grievances--a notion that the GSOC dismissed on the grounds that it would "eliminate our union."

So both sides seem hunkered down for a protracted fight. The stakes are high for John Sexton (who declined to be interviewed for this article) and for GSOC/UAW: At a town hall meeting in February, Sexton, a theologian who is given to sonorous pronouncements about "the university as sanctuary," admitted, according to several GSOC members present, that he is under pressure from Ivy League colleagues to restrain the union. (Yale, Columbia and Brown are resolutely hostile to graduate student unions.) Other Sexton-watchers insist that NYU's leader is committed to a top-down, paternalistic management style.

Many hopes have been invested in the GSOC as well, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney--who views graduate student unions as a growth area for labor and also sees the administration's actions as emblematic of the hostile climate for union organizing--has made three appearances on campus. If the GSOC is vanquished, it would have a chilling effect nationwide on graduate students attempting to forge collective bargaining agreements with private universities.

Meanwhile, pressure on NYU's president, who has yet to carry out his promised reprisals against those who are still striking, is steadily increasing. Hundreds of scholars, writers and concerned citizens have written to Sexton to protest his actions and to warn him that NYU's reputation is at stake. "Let me tell you, President Sexton," wrote CUNY historian Jesse Lemisch, "these are our very best young people. They are among the most serious and dedicated scholars and teachers I have known."

"NYU has become a great university, in size and quality," wrote Harvard historian John Womack Jr. "You are threatening to wreck some of its infrastructure, and ruin the future of some of the best young scholars in the country; not smart."