NYU Grad Students Petition

by Henry on December 7, 2005

Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson and a bunch of other prominent lit-crit types have organized a “group letter”:http://new.petitiononline.com/tosexton/petition.html to John Sexton, president of NYU, protesting at NYU’s appalling behaviour towards graduate students on strike. So far they’ve gotten over 5,000 signatures. Go give them some more.

Update: I hadn’t realised until I read “Michael Bérubé”:http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/in_other_sokal_related_news/ that Alan Sokal too has written to Sexton in protest. Nice to see old antagonists uniting in a good cause.

{ 35 comments }

1

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.07.05 at 3:25 pm

link

“NYU President John Sexton sent an e-mail Monday to graduate assistants stating that those who do not resume their teaching appointments by Dec. 5 would be denied stipends and eligibility for spring semester assistantships.”

I presume that is what you mean by “apalling behaviour”.

The problem is that these graduate assistants fall into a weird place between “students” and “employees”. They are attempting to receive a graduate degree from the university, but part of that attempt involves teaching classes. Unionization will tend to minimize the “student” status and student emphasis. I’m not sure that is clearly a good thing.

2

Steve 12.07.05 at 3:33 pm

Sebastian-
But those graduate students are stickin’ it to the man! They must be right-you dig?

BTW-
Your quote can’t be what is referred to as ‘the appalling behavior.’ The quote just says, in essence, that the graduate students who don’t work aren’t going to get paid for their lack of work.

Steve

3

Sebastian holsclaw 12.07.05 at 4:15 pm

I agree that the quote isn’t all that appalling. But if that isn’t it I don’t know what Henery means by “appalling behaviour”. Not giving them everything they want in a contract? (I haven’t followed the issue before googling it today so for all I know there is other appalling behaviour that I couldn’t find).

It seems to me that not paying the stipend makes sense if they are just employees because they aren’t working. But if they are students endeavouring to get a degree the removal of the stipend looks like an unfair attack on their education. The problem here is that both sides want to treat these people as students when it suits them and as employees when it suits them. The putative ‘union’ wants to bargain collectively for employee rights. But they want student treatment too. The university wants to treat them as students, but they also want to suspend pay for lack of work. It is definitely an odd middle area.

4

jacob 12.07.05 at 4:24 pm

The quote just says, in essence, that the graduate students who don’t work aren’t going to get paid for their lack of work.

No. Sexton’s letter establishes a blacklist. It says that if people don’t come back to work from the strike, they will be denied work after the strike is finished. Were graduate employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act, this would be illegal. Unfortunately, Bush appointees on the National Labor Relations Board stripped graduate employees of their legal protections, so it isn’t technically illegal.

Of course, this isn’t the only thing that Sexton has done that can be counted as “appalling.” The union at NYU was recognized until the summer, when the administration unilaterally refused to bargain. So it’s not just that they won’t give a fair contract (though it’s that, too)–it’s also that they won’t recognize the duly elected collective bargaining agent at all. Further, the conduct of the administration during the strike, which includes not just blacklisting but also spying on students and faculty, has been egregious.

5

Scott Lemieux 12.07.05 at 4:24 pm

“Unionization will tend to minimize the “student” status and student emphasis.”

This is just silly. Grad students who carry significant parts of a university’s teaching load don’t become employees simply because they bargain collectively; they are employees whether they’re unionized or not. The argument that because graduate students are students they thereore can’t really be employees is obviously specious (and so is the claim that grad students teach only as part of their training.) Oddly, faculty can be teachers, employees, and researchers all at once! Nor does unionization have any discernible impact on one’s academic program, relationship with advisors, etc.

6

Uncle Kvetch 12.07.05 at 4:32 pm

They are attempting to receive a graduate degree from the university, but part of that attempt involves teaching classes.

No, it doesn’t. In the NYU department from which I recently withdrew, if a grad student can cover their tuition & living expenses out of pocket, there’s no requirement that they work as a TA. So the degree really doesn’t “involve” teaching classes as some kind of prerequisite.

Graduate teaching assistants have been unionized for years at many public universities, with no minimization of their “student ‘status’ and student emphasis” (whatever that means).

7

eweininger 12.07.05 at 4:37 pm

Assuming it’s accurate, the Sexton quote does not threaten to withold pay stipends for work not presently being performed. Rather, it clearly threatens to withold _future_ (i.e. spring 06 semester) employment.

As such, it amounts to punishment for a labor action, and therefore certainly meets my definition of “appalling behavior”.

Though I have bitched about it on CT before, let me again repeat that the reliance on grad student teaching by U.S. colleges and universities frequently transcends anything that can be charitably considered an “apprenticeship” and has landed in an area much closer to “exploitative”.

8

Tim 12.07.05 at 5:09 pm

Here’s a novel idea: a realistic contract between graduate students and their faculties outlining the responsibilities of both. Let grad students see what they’re getting into before they sign, and hold faculty to the fire for actually providing support and education.

One way to minimize messes like this.

9

Cryptic Ned 12.07.05 at 5:11 pm

Your quote can’t be what is referred to as ‘the appalling behavior.’ The quote just says, in essence, that the graduate students who don’t work aren’t going to get paid for their lack of work.

Yes, in other words, the TA’s who go on strike are going to get fired, and expelled in their capacity as students.

10

David Velleman 12.07.05 at 5:38 pm

Those would like to know something about the history behind the strike might want to read this comment by Paul Boghossian and the following comment by Ned Block in the discussion initiated by Jason Stanley on Brian Leiter’s blog. Readers might also be interested to know that only one-third of the Arts and Science departments are affected by the strike, partly because students in the sciences were excluded from the union-representation election, and partly because students in many other departments (philosophy, economics, etc.) have not supported the strike.

11

M. Gordon 12.07.05 at 5:44 pm

Unionization will tend to minimize the “student” status and student emphasis.

Uh, how exactly do you see this happening? In what way is it minimized, or in what way is it detracted from at all?

But if that isn’t it I don’t know what Henery means by “appalling behaviour”. Not giving them everything they want in a contract? (I haven’t followed the issue before googling it today so for all I know there is other appalling behaviour that I couldn’t find).

Boy, that’s a good excuse for ignorance. How about “refusing to bargain a contract, period”? NYU doesn’t recognize the right of the union to collectively bargain, and is now taking action against them that would not have been legal had the NLRB not withdrew the union’s legal recongition. Let me emphasize that: the pre-Bush NLRB gave them the right to unionize, but the Bush-stacked NLRB (the same body, now stacked with Bush appointees) reversed their own decision. Activist judiciary, indeed. (I realize that the NLRB is not part of the judiciary, but their role is entirely equivalent in these cases, and if you don’t like their decisions, you can appeal them to the judiciary.)

12

Cryptic Ned 12.07.05 at 6:41 pm

If only we hadn’t voted to have another four-year moratorium on all NLRB activities last November.

13

Tom 12.07.05 at 7:12 pm

Well, as someone who was in a teaching assistant’s union while being a graduate student 22 years ago, it is a little depressing to hear the same old fuzzy thinking still going on after all this time (pauses to grumble into beer).

TA’s who are also graduate students are not “between students and employees”, they are both. They have two relationships with the university, one as a student and a second as an employee. These roles are not completely independent, but they are independent in the most important ways.

Unionizing in the role as an employee makes sense, and I see no way in which it minimizes the student emphasis. It clarifies the difference between the two and gives students a way to resist the pressure of being dragged into unrelated work and having their graduate student progress held over their head. It is too easy for cash-strapped universities to invoke some kind of apprenticeship/loyalty/intellectual development hokum as a convenient way of getting cheap teaching.

14

SamChevre 12.07.05 at 7:14 pm

Assuming it’s accurate, the Sexton quote does not threaten to withold pay stipends for work not presently being performed. Rather, it clearly threatens to withold future (i.e. spring 06 semester) employment.

Agreed–but isn’t this a less harsh sanction than the clearly legal and normal alternative? As far as I know, it would be entirely legal to declare that the strikers have not fulfilled the terms of this semester’s TA contract, and so owe tuition for the semester–and not allow them to re-enroll until tuition is paid. It seems to me that not hiring them next semester, butpaying them this semester while they are on strike, is more lenient, not more harsh.

15

catchy 12.07.05 at 7:22 pm

David Velleman–

Is anyone surprised that the phil. grad students aren’t supporting the strike when the dept. chair — Paul Boghossian — is a vociferous opponent of the strikes?

16

james 12.07.05 at 8:22 pm

Is anyone surprised that the phil. grad students aren’t supporting the strike when the dept. chair—Paul Boghossian—is a vociferous opponent of the strikes?

Meaning, I suppose, that the philosophy grad students are eager to join a union but are frightened by their chair’s opposition?? Perhaps we might consider another possibility: these students, being intelligent people, looked at the issues, weighed the costs and benefits, and decided NOT to support the union. Why is it that whenever graduate students do not rush to sign a union card, these vaguely sinister explanations bubble to the surface?

Here at Yale one of the most outspoken opponents of graduate student unionization has been history chair (and now dean) Jon Butler; yet his well known opposition to unionization has never prevented a strong majority of history graduate students fron signing membership cards, nor has it prevented a substantial number from actively working on behalf of the unionization cause.

Or are philosophers more easily cowed than historians??

17

CR 12.07.05 at 10:25 pm

I teach at a (public) university where the grad student TAs are unionized. I have never had an experience that suggests that the unionized status of the grad students interferes in any way with their educations. I have never heard anyone else say so either…

But then again, we professors are unionized too here (and get a damn good benefits package because of it)… So maybe we get it in a way that some folks at NYU don’t…

18

Kenny Easwaran 12.07.05 at 11:43 pm

It’s been my experience at Berkeley with student labor issues that although science students are generally less pro-union and humanities students are more pro-union (probably at least in part due to the amount of non-university funding that science students get), the math students are more pro-union than the philosophy students. Some of this is probably because of the very woolly “arguments” used by union representatives, which tend to push philosophers away rather than attracting them.

One might also try to say something about math being the least sciencey of the sciences, and philosophy being the most sciencey of the humanities. (At least in terms of aspirations, if not necessarily methodology.)

19

Brandon Berg 12.08.05 at 12:42 am

No. Sexton’s letter establishes a blacklist. It says that if people don’t come back to work from the strike, they will be denied work after the strike is finished.

The University is threatening to fire its employees for not not doing their jobs?

Appalling!

20

washerdreyer 12.08.05 at 3:44 am

That letter begins “We, the undersigned faculty…[emphasis added].” I took that to mean that I, as a law student, shouldn’t sign it. I note that many other students have signed it. Does this mean it’s no longer just a list of faculty and fine to sign, or that everyone else is mistaken?

21

Chris Bertram 12.08.05 at 4:34 am

Well I may have missed something in the flurry of comments on various blogs, but it seems as if Velleman and Boghossian always avoid addressing the issue raised by Henry’s post here.

In their comments they stick to the merits of the dispute, the _ius ad bellum_ as it were. But the post here isn’t about the _ius ad bellum_ but about the way the administration has conducted itself in the conflict: the _ius in bello_ .

Boghossian makes much (too much) of his liberal, Democratic and pro-labor views. Surely it is reasonable to ask about whether it is consistent to espouse such values at the same time as endorsing the tactics employed by the NYU administration? But perhaps Boghossian is embarassed by those tactics, which would explain why he fails to discuss them.

22

Dan Nexon 12.08.05 at 7:41 am

“The University is threatening to fire its employees for not not doing their jobs? Appalling!”

Well, Brandon, if you’d read the background information you would know that, according to the University (and now the NLRB) the graduate students are not employees. If they were employees, they would have a right to form a union and be protected by relevant employment law. But since they’re not employees, they can be “fired” for striking in their attempt to keep their union. But, as you yourself note, the justification for “firing” them would seem to imply that they are employees. Oh, the head spins.

23

Barry 12.08.05 at 9:00 am

James: “these vaguely sinister explanations bubble to the surface?”

BZZZZZZZZZZZZT! Wrong answer! ‘their department chair vociferously opposes the union’ does **not** equate to ‘vaguely sinister explanations’.

24

eweininger 12.08.05 at 1:13 pm

Agreed—but isn’t this a less harsh sanction than the clearly legal and normal alternative? As far as I know, it would be entirely legal to declare that the strikers have not fulfilled the terms of this semester’s TA contract, and so owe tuition for the semester—and not allow them to re-enroll until tuition is paid.

Reiterating Dan Nexon’s point: To say this is to acknowledge that they’re employees. As such, they generally should have a right to bargain collectively, and I believe that their employer is subject to severe constraints–and in most cases statutorily prohibited–from punitive dismissals, which is what not hiring them for the spring semester amounts to. (Btw, would NYU be able to come up with all the needed replacements in the available time, or will it try to force some of the researchers back into the classroom???)

As to tuition–the dismissed strikers will suddenly receive a fat tuition bill for the present semester or the spring semester. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t see how it would make much of difference to them which it is.

25

eweininger 12.08.05 at 1:14 pm

Sorry about the itals.

26

james 12.08.05 at 3:20 pm

Barry (post 23): I’ll take “Glib, Sophomoric Responses” for $500 dollars please.

However, you are correct; I should have left out the modifier “vaguely” to be more in accord with the pro-grad-union talking points, which hold that students would support the union if only their anti-grad-union advisors and chairs would stop frightening them into silence. As I noted, history grad students at Yale supported the union cause despite the position of their chair. And as others here have noted, support for unionization does vary from division to division and from department to department due to what is surely a bewildering array of factors. The suggestion, very common at Yale, that a majority of grad students would support the union if only the faculty and administration would stop intimidating them is rubbish and is insulting. It is insulting to the graduate students, who can weigh the evidence and make our own decisions, thank you, and is insulting to the many many professors here who have reservations about the union but who are willing to let the graduate students weigh the evidence and make their own decisions.

27

Barry 12.08.05 at 5:37 pm

I would guess that a lot of the variation between departments is due to the obvious reasons – grad students will spend more time with people in their own departments. And if all of the students in a department strike, it’s harder for a department to fire them. If most back out at the last minute, the ones who kept going are more vulnerable.

28

Brandon Berg 12.08.05 at 6:11 pm

Well, Brandon, if you’d read the background information you would know that, according to the University (and now the NLRB) the graduate students are not employees.

Yes, I’m aware of that, but I think it’s fairly obvious that they are employees. I’m just pointing out the absurdity of referring to threatening to fire employees for not doing their jobs as “appalling behaviour.”

29

Barry 12.08.05 at 8:37 pm

Brandon, if they’re employees, they can legally organize.

30

Brandon Berg 12.08.05 at 8:59 pm

Brandon, if they’re employees, they can legally organize.

Fine. But employers should be able to fire them for not doing their jobs. Don’t bother telling me that the law says otherwise. If the law says otherwise, the law is an ass.

31

jacob 12.08.05 at 9:59 pm

In today’s Newsday, Gordon Lafer points out several more instances of “appalling behavior”:

1. Creating a blacklist of strike participants. (This is what Brandon so charmingly dismisses as firing people for not doing their jobs.)

2. Requiring that those who are given teaching jobs next semester promise not to participate in any future job actions. As Lafer mentions, making employment contingent on a promise not to engage in concerted actions is a “yellow dog contract” and was made illegal even before the Wagner Act. It’s unclear (at least to me) whether graduate teachers are currently covered by this prior act, and therefore whether Sexton’s requirement is illegal or merely unethical.

3. In Lafer’s words: “Sexton suggests that those who participate in strike actions but, God forbid, graduate before they can be punished, may have negative assessments attached to their university record when they apply for jobs at other schools. This type of blacklisting has not been seen since the dark days of McCarthyism.”

If that’s not appalling behavior, I’m not sure what is.

32

Brandon Berg 12.09.05 at 2:03 am

The above, sans inflammatory rhetoric:

1. Those who don’t do their jobs will be fired, and will be ineligible to be rehired for five months.

2. Those who are hired in the future will be required to promise to perform faithfully for the duration of their employment the duties for which they were hired.

3. A prospective employer inquiring about the performance of someone fired for failing to do his job will be told that the employee in question was fired for failing to do his job.

Appalling!

33

jacob 12.09.05 at 9:08 am

The funny thing about conversations like this and comments like Brandon’s is that they are nearly identitical–down to the rhetoric used by both sides–to arguments about unionization in the Gilded Age. It’s slightly absurd to me that we have had to have the same conversations about the rights of workers for the past 125 years. I can think of no other aspect of politics where we have progressed so little.

34

Brandon Berg 12.09.05 at 3:13 pm

I haven’t made any arguments. I’ve expressed an opinion (employers should be able to fire employees who don’t do their jobs), but mostly I’ve distilled the facts and presented them free of pro-union rhetoric.

To which of the three points above do you object? If a teacher won’t do his job, should the university be barred from replacing him with someone who will, or perhaps forced to fire the replacement when the original teacher decides that it wasn’t such a good idea after all? Should teachers not be expected to teach their classes? Or should universities be barred from giving honest and factual performance evaluations upon request?

35

John 12.12.05 at 12:06 pm

Brandon,

Your posts reveal a laughable ‘understanding’ (if I can call it that) of political and social life. You’re describing the employer-employee relationship (in this case, university-teacher/graduate student) as if all that mattered about it from a moral/social point of view was the fact that both side have signed a contract. Nothing else matters to you — certainly not the unequal power relations between the two sides to the contract.

No, it’s not morally okay for an organization to fire strikers — and many countries (including even the U.S., I believe) have laws about that. And the reason why it’s not okay is that the right to strike (and the right NOT to get fired while striking) is one of the only ways in which a fairer balance of power between employer and employee can be achieved. Of course, you can deny that equality of that sort is morally important. But then you’ll have to argue for it.

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