Sunday, November 13, 2005

NYU Grad Student Strike....We Knew it Was Coming

Ever since the NLRB ruling last year that graduate students were not employees, it's only been a matter of time until NYU would refuse to bargain with GSOC. More power to NYU grad students, this led them to call a strike. They walked out on Wednesday. The Columbia Spectator has a pretty good article summing up the issues and relating them to other grad student union struggles. NYU's paper has an article with a list of comments that I'll discuss more below. Diane Krauthamer at Indymedia has stories and pictures of the strike.
Jeers to the Courant Institute for threatening striking math students with disciplinary action and cheers to those faculty who, like Molly Nolan, history professor, Historians Against War activist and union supporter, are holding classes off campus. One of the weirdest and most troubling aspects of management's response is the adding of administrators as members to blackboard courses taught by graduate students. The article from "Inside Higher Ed" linked above mentions this event:
Christine Harrington, an associate professor of politics, was fuming when she met her Law and Society class in a church Thursday morning. Harrington noticed Wednesday that two associate deans in the College of Arts and Sciences had been added as having access to the Blackboard account for her course. “What the administration did was to violate your privacy,” she told the students. She said it would have a “chilling effect” on her use of the online resource, for which she had an expectation of privacy. Her students responded with anger at the administration. One said it “thrives on secrecy.”
Beckman pointed out, though, the names of the associate deans were clearly and openly added to Blackboard, and that faculty members in 12 departments were consulted, and said it might help to “maintain communications across the college” during the strike. He added that the addition to Harrington’s account, and several others, was a technical mistake, and that it was meant only for courses taught primarily by graduate assistants. He said that the mistake occurred in courses where a teaching assistant was listed on the account.

In case you're not familiar with the general issues at stake, here they are: With increasing university corporatization, the number of tenured full-time faculty teaching courses at colleges and universities nationwide has declined to well below 50%. The largest group of part-time classes in Universities are taught by graduate students and adjuncts, whose low pay, lack of job security, and no to few benefits means that they are both cheap and have virtually no academic freedom. The grad students who are striking today are being exploited and conned. As grad students, they are being prepared for jobs that no longer exist in any numbers, and yet graduate students are needed to teach undergraduates at places like NYU, so people keep getting in to graduate school. Many of the people on strike now will wind up as adjuncts in the future, living at an even lower status in the university hierarchy than they do as graduate students, because instead of being seen as "potential winners" (of the job lottery) they'll be already losersin the eyes of the academic elite. The crisis in higher education is a serious one that everyone should be concerned about. There's a serious racket going on. I think Universities these days should be compared to the "hiring sharks" that once plagued the West Coast and provoked the Wobbly "Fres Speech Fights" of the 1900s.
Here are some examples from my own experience. Before I had my PhD, I taught American studies and composition courses at the University of Minnesota for about $10,000.00 per year + a tuition waiver. As a graduate student in a major research institution that was in competition with the unionized campuses of Wisconsin and Michigan for grad students, I also had health care benefits that were considerably better than the ones I have now. For that compensation I taught four courses per year. At the time I didn't have a PhD, though, so it made sense that I was paid so much less than a regular professor was, right?
After all, I was being educated, paying my dues, being groomed for a life as a scholar and I'd eventually make a lot more money. Not exactly, when I got my degree, I was entering an academic marketplace in which it was typical, I learned during job searches, for hundreds of people to apply to every open position. There were many searches for which there were 300-400 applicants when I was in my first year out of grad school. It took me awhile to land a tenure track job, so instead of making pots of money with my new PhD I taught more courses, went to more meetings, held more office hours, accumulated debt, and made slightly over twice as much as I had as a graduate student in Minnesota, but now I was living in the twice-as-expensive New York City. At least I still had COBRA for my health insurance. When I got my fulltime job, my salary didn't quite double, but I had made so little for so long, that it was easy for the administrators where I now work to lowball me as much as possible and it still seemed like a great deal. Low wages are never a route to higher ones, only an excuse to pay still lower ones. In every other field of work, people understand this.
Mine is a typical story for a new PhD in the humanities, so how does the NYU administration think it can sell that story of apprenticeship and education as the primary function of graduate students when the grad students that are on strike now are on their way to jobs of "equal or lesser value" in the academic hierarchy?
I hope that the grad students get support from the undergrads, and that the Admin is forced to bend. Let's hope those consumer students realize, as one of the commenters in the "Washington Square News" did, that it's the university that's behaving in a despicable manner by refusing to recognize the union. I say kudos to NYU grad students and their leadership for being strong enough to strike. Grad students, faculty and administrators across the country will be watching them and the outcome of this dispute will have a major impact on higher education labor in general.
Meanwhile, CUNY faculty may soon have a contract to decide on, but all the emails I've been getting from our President Barbara Bowen seem to suggest unspecified concessions, and that's bad. Maybe we'll have to go on strike too.

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