I graduated from Yale a year and a half ago. Although I’m no longer in New Haven, I’m doing something Yale workers have done 12 times in the last 37 years: I’m joining the members of my union on the picket lines in the first graduate employee strike in the 174-year history of New York University.
This isn’t a conversion narrative. As an undergraduate, I always supported GESO. I understood that their workplace was my classroom and that, because I was thinking about grad school, their struggle was my future. Their vision for the university meshed pretty nicely with mine. As a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, I organized in solidarity with Yale’s graduate students for years, but it’s been somewhat disarming to begin grad school and assume the position of one of those grad students with whom I used to work.
Perhaps you’re wondering how things got to this point. Four years ago, following a widely hailed National Labor Relations Board decision that graduate workers be entitled to union representation and that NYU recognize the results of a union election, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) became the first recognized graduate employee union at a private U.S. university. Last year, in a 3-2 partisan split, the NLRB, restocked by Bush with right-wing, anti-worker, corporate ideologues, reversed the “NYU Decision” and ruled that people like me and my counterparts at similar universities are not, in fact, workers. Rather, they decided, we’re glorified trainees in extremely long apprenticeships and therefore not entitled to use the (broken) NLRB process in order to attain recognition. We also lost many of the protections labor law affords to workers who do belong to unions. Still, nothing legally prevents NYU from choosing to recognize GSOC and negotiate a second contract.
The 2004 “Brown Decision” gave administrators a choice. Under our first contract we’d experienced significant gains in pay and health-care coverage and won an independent grievance procedure. Instead of negotiating a second contract, in August, NYU decided to “move forward” by (paradoxically) moving backwards, unilaterally reinstating a non-union workplace despite widespread support for GSOC among graduate students, our faculty and the undergraduates we teach. When GSOC rejected the university’s contract ultimatum, which would have implemented an anti-worker “open shop” and abolished the grievance procedure, the administration began heaping praise upon itself, promising it would “give” us a non-union alternative in the near future as recompense for trying to strip us of our own collective voice. Needless to say, we weren’t impressed.
Since then, the NYU community has been subjected to a barrage of e-mails from President Sexton and other administrators, who proclaim that while they “cherish” each and every one of us, they have “moved past” the union and any students or faculty who would dare “disrupt classes” may be “called to account.” They don’t use the word “strike” except in scare quotes; to do otherwise would be to admit that we do work and therefore can strike.
We’re striking to bring NYU back to the table and negotiate a new contract. That’s the strike’s sole demand. All it will take to bring GSOC back to work is for NYU to negotiate in good faith. But we have a broader agenda. We’re striking because the future of the academy is in jeopardy.
Folks like us, contingent academic workers with low pay and little or no voice in our work, are doing increasing amounts of the teaching and research that nets universities like Yale and NYU millions in federal grants and corporate licensing partnerships. Meanwhile, we eat Top Ramen for dinner and pray NYU doesn’t cut our health-care coverage further than they already have, even after telling us benefits will remain the same.
We’re striking because when we graduate, we want to graduate into a profession where we aren’t treated like disposable commodities. Our lack of job security and difficulty securing dissertation fellowships in our later years affects the kind and quality of the work we can do.
Our work makes our university work. Because we care about the work we do, we need NYU to negotiate with us so that we have a mechanism to make universities just, democratic places in which to work and learn. NYU’s administration — like that of Yale, Columbia and Penn — wants us to be silent and docile rather than engaged and argumentative. That’s not why we chose graduate school. In the face of academic capitalism run amok, we’re taking to the streets because we must.
Zach Schwartz-Weinstein ’04 is a first-year American Studies graduate student at New York University.