Friday, December 02, 2005

City's Labor Unions Come Out to Support the NYU Strikers

This afternoon I joined perhaps 1000? activists from around NY to picket outside Bobst library in support of GSOC. My union, the PSC, was well represented, as were the transit workers, UNITE/HERE, and several other city unions. While I generally distrust union bureaucrats and yawn cynically when they get up to speak, I was happy to see all the various "elected officials," district council reps, and others who denounced NYU's policies and proclaimed that New York is a "union town." Despite the much heralded split in the AFL-CIO, it was not bitter at this rally: everyone in the crowd clapped and cheered both for John Sweeney and for the spokesman of the "Change to Win" coalition. Of course, in every one of these moments of clapping and cheering, everyone is really cheering for the strikers. Regardless of differences in tactics, rank and filers and the rest of us are ready to support just anything if it seems like it will help other workers win. So, differences were thrown aside to shout "shame! shame! shame!" at NYU, and today's rally at NYU was a true demonstration of solidarity and a rejection of NYU's union busting University Pres, John Sexton. Given the callousness and transparency of NYU's claims, it's easy for workers from all ranks of labor to see the connections between the University's tactics and those of any other business that don't want to bargain with its workers and use idiotic arguments to justify their stingy behavior. Now of course, behind the scenes, there is more going on with labor leaders than meets the eye at rallies like this one. There's a lot of brave talk to get people pumped up, but sometimes the pumping up doesn't lead to a real mobilization. However, in GSOC's case, the mobilization is going well, judging from today's turn-out and from last week's rally with undergraduates in support of GSOC.
If you are interested in the long history of GSOC at NYU, NYU-Inc has a nice archive here, and Amy Goodman hosted a debate between GSOC leader, Michael Palm, and Philosophy professor, Paul Boghossian this morning on Democracy Now.
For those who would dismiss graduate student unions as the whining of the privileged, it might have been a surprise to see and hear the loud support among "real workers" for PSC President Barbara Bowen's speech, which focused on the special type of work that NYU grad students do. It's not just that grad students are workers, she said, but also that intellectual work should be valued, and that the attack on GSOC was an attack on the research, the knowledge, the ideas, that GSOC members (and other academics) produce. I was standing next to a group of Transit Workers Union members, Black and Latino women in nifty blue jackets, and they shouted and clapped and nodded when Bowen spoke -more loudly than they did when Nadler (and the not-so-militant-anymore Toussaint) were up there. Working people know the value of knowledge, even if faux-populists like George Bush and David Brooks don't think so.
One aspect of this notion of intellectual work is similar to the larger pattern in the workforce of replacing full-time workers with part-timers, and grad student unions are a response to this pattern. That's why the most absurd comment that Boghossian made in the Democracy Now interview linked above has to do with drawing a distinction between Adjuncts and Graduate Students, which he bases on the idea that the Graduate Students are different from adjuncts because they will have a "significantly better life" after they cease to be graduate students:
.... There really is a difference between the graduate students and the adjuncts. I mean, Michael is lumping them all together into the category of contingent workers. The adjuncts really did deserve to unionize. I mean, they really are employees, and their labor is used to drive a certain amount of the engine of N.Y.U., and it is very important to protect their rights.
But graduate students are people who are given the privilege of coming to a doctoral program in philosophy, as it might be, or biology, or whatever, and are paid a large amount of money for the privilege of pursuing a degree that will then put -- that will then put them in a position to have a significantly better life. It's really not comparable. And the $50,000 figure, by the way, is not a fiction. I mean, tuition really does cost a lot of money. It costs a lot of money to our undergraduates who are currently unable to get the education that they paid for.

I think this is one of the worst aspects of the anti-union arguments, which always play on the idea that those who would need to join a union are "substandard" while talented and skilled people don't need unions. The idea that the adjuncts working at NYU were once graduate students either at NYU or elsewhere is simply avoided here, because of course that would undermine the idea that it's OK to pay graduate students so little because one day, they will all have tenure track jobs at universities like NYU. The fact that universities like NYU hire so many adjuncts means that graduate education is worth less financially than it used to be for all but a small minority of people who actually land the "plumb jobs." The only conclusion one can draw from the statistics of hiring in higher ed today is that Universities admit more graduate students than will ever be hired as full-time faculty because they need the graduate students as cheap labor both before their degrees are done and afterwards as well.
The first step to changing this bad situation is organizing academic employees, with adjuncts and Grad assistants in the fore-front. After Sexton's threat to fire the strikers at NYU on Monday, we're in a crucial moment for the future of all academics.


Anonymous said...

rebecca -
thanks so much for your detailed and inspired reportback on the friday rally. we really appreciate your support in our fight to win a second contract.

i just wanted to add in response to your discussion of boghossian's comments on democracy now, that in fact many grad students become adjuncts after they are no longer "eligible" for teaching assistantships. this makes boghossian's argument even more spurious. as a grad student i have been teaching as an adjunct at NYU and elsewhere for a couple of years. the false distinction he draws really fails to address the fact that these are in fact positions that universities have chosen to exploit for cheaper labor to fill in the gaps of undergraduate teaching. clearly having union representation for both adjuncts and grad assistants gives NYU less room to unfairly capitalize on this lower paid labor pool and makes the university accountable to us in a tangible and meaningful way.

in solidarity,
e, proud GSOC member

Anonymous said...

Yeah! Atrios writes:

"...NYU's treatment of their graduate students is awful. It's certainly the case that academic administrators have the right to be assholes, but I'm not sure they should be able to get away with being such disingenuous ("full of shit") assholes.

Basically Bush's NLRB, which is pretty much on a perpetual mission to shrink the set of workers who are eligible to form unions, reversed a previous decision which had allowed graduate students to unionize. NYU said love ya Bushy, and told its union to FOAD.

I was teaching when then union was forming at UCI. Certainly there are understandable reasons why administration and faculty would be a nervous about such a thing, though the fact that they often are demonstrates just how "liberal" academia can be sometimes. Nonetheless the arguments in the end boiled down to "how dare our employees expect that we treat them like employees instead of indentured servants!" which is basically what the lofty goal of grad students unions is. Not all faculty treated grad students like that, of course, but there wasn't much of a mechanism in place to prevent it from happening either.

And the idea that teaching is "professional development" is nonsense. All work experience can be called "professional development.""