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NEW YORK—Local politicians, national union leaders, and Harvard labor
activists gathered here in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of
Manhattan last Thursday to rally behind graduate students at New York
University who have been on strike for nearly three months.
But even as thousands of well-wishers from around the world register their support for the strikers through an online petition, NYU is threatening to stop paying the strikers’ stipends for two semesters and to prevent them from working as teaching assistants in the future.
The struggles of striking graduate students at NYU might deter their counterparts at other private universities, including Harvard, from demanding collective-bargaining rights.
NYU insists that graduate students are not employees, and that they therefore do not have a right to unionize.
“What the university keeps saying is ‘You are not a worker,’ but that’s not what I’m seeing,” said a striking teaching assistant, Amy LeClair, in a speech to more than 300 activists at last Thursday’s rally. “I am essentially being fired from my job, not only for the current semester but for the future semester, as well,” said LeClair, who is also a graduate student in sociology.
LeClair said she is one of an estimated six “graduate assistants”—a term used to describe graduate students holding teaching and research positions—who received letters last week informing them that they were suspected of being on strike and listing potential penalties.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said the punishments should come as no surprise. “Each and every graduate assistant received a letter on Nov. 28, telling them what the consequences would be, of not teaching,” Beckman said.
“Therefore, any such decision must have been an act of conviction,” Beckman said. “So I find it puzzling that someone would act out of conviction, and then begin to complain about what the consequences were, particularly when they were well known in advance.”
From 2002 until this past summer, NYU was the only private university in the country to hold a contract with a union of its graduate students. But NYU allowed the contract to lapse on Aug. 31. Administrators offered a revised contract, but NYU’s graduate student union rejected it.
The union, known as the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), has been on strike since Nov. 9 to protest the end of the contract. The students’ union is affiliated with the umbrella labor group UAW, which is best known for representing auto workers.
Beckman, the NYU spokesman, said that all graduate students, even those who are penalized for striking, “will continue to get free tuition, and they will continue to have 100 percent of their health care premiums paid for.”
Beckman added that the university plans to make loans available to graduate assistants suffering from stipend cuts, and that these loans would not require the students to go back to work.
Beckman said, “Does that sound like typical behavior by an ‘employer’ in a strike? I would say no.”
“Why is this different? Because they are not our employees,” Beckman said. “They are our students, so we are continuing to support them in a way that will allow them to continue to be successful, academically.”
But GSOC spokeswoman Susan Valentine asked, “If we’re not workers, why are you taking away our money if we’re not working?”
Valentine, who is also a graduate student in medieval history, called NYU’s free-tuition pledge a “red herring,” because many Ph.D students at elite universities across the country do not have to pay tuition anyway.
Valentine estimated that “hundreds” of the university’s estimated 1,000 graduate assistants remain on strike, although she admits the number has dwindled from the initial count of roughly 500.
But Beckman, the NYU spokesman, said an “overwhelming majority” of the graduate assistants have gone back to work. He also said he thought the rally “seemed to be about half the size of the rallies that took place in the first semester.”
WIN WITH QUINN?
The newly elected speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, told activists at last Thursday’s rally that “the entire resources of this City Council are committed to winning this strike.”
However, when asked afterwards to elaborate on what measures the council might take, Quinn did not offer any details. “We’re going to do all the research we can do to figure out how we can be most helpful to the workers here,” she said. “Hopefully, NYU will come to their senses and stop this stupidity.”
A leader of Unite Here, a union that mainly represents workers in the food service, hotel, and textile industries, sought to link NYU’s stance to President Bush’s policies.
The federal National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2000 that graduate students at NYU were employees of the university and therefore had the right to unionize. The majority of the board’s members at the time were appointed by President Clinton.
But in July 2004, in a case involving Brown University, the board reversed its earlier precedent and ruled that graduate students at private universities did not have the right to unionize. By that point, most of the board’s members had been named by Bush.
“The Bush labor board said...that you don’t count, you’re not workers,” the president of Unite Here’s hospitality division, John W. Wilhelm, told the demonstrators. “Well, we know where to tell President Bush to take that, along with all the rest of his bullshit,” Wilhelm said.
The leader of Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), Michael W. Gould-Wartofsky ’07, showed up at the rally here to support the NYU strikers, and he said that SLAM would support a unionization drive at Harvard. But, he added, graduate students “at a place like Harvard are often afraid to speak up.”
Gould-Wartofsky is also a Crimson editorial editor and a regular columnist.
WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE?
Strikers have received support from faculty members at NYU and around the globe since NYU issued its theats in the Nov. 28 letter. In early December, 10 professors from the United States, the United Kingdom and France signed a letter to NYU President John Sexton opposing the punishments. They posted the letter online, and it has garnered over 6,000 signatures.
The renowned University of California, Berkeley feminist theorist Judith Butler wrote the letter, which is now available at www.facultydemocracy.org.
According to the website, 39 Harvard affiliates have signed the petition, including Professor of Law Janet Halley. She wrote in an e-mail yesterday that NYU “should not change such substantial parts of the academic culture to cram down the union.”
Some NYU graduate assistants who wanted to keep working but who would not cross the strikers’ picket lines moved their classes off campus, creating a potential hassle for undergraduates.
“I think that undergraduates are sick of the strike, and a lot of them don’t know how to channel that energy,” said Sarah Dell’Orto, who is a member of the pro-striker group Graduate-Undergraduate Solidarity. “A lot of times, [undergraduates] take that anger or frustration out on GSOC, instead of trying to be supportive,” Dell’Orto said.
A handful of anti-strike groups have formed on facebook.com, as well, with titles such as “Gsoc Can Shove it. If I Had Free Tuition I’d Be Dancing In the Streets,” and “Strike Against the Strike.”
Undergraduate Elizabeth R. Webber was in a Spanish class taught by a graduate assistant, but the instructor went on strike and ceased teaching altogether.
“Initially, I did support the strike because I felt the grad students were entitled to certain rights,” Webber wrote in an email. But now, she added, “I don’t think the GSOC strike has really accomplished anything, and I’m not sure that it will.”
“At some point the grad students are just going to have to compromise,” Webber wrote. “It’s not fair that the undergrads are the ones who are suffering.”
—Staff Writer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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