Support fund

by Henry on January 24, 2006

Via Robin Vargese at the excellent “3 Quarks Daily”:, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at NYU have set up a “hardship fund”: , which will help defray “indispensable expenses such as health care, utilities, and rent for those who have lost their pay.” Need I say that this is an important cause, not only for the grad students at NYU, but at other universities too?



working girl 01.24.06 at 2:23 pm

[aeiou] “Hardship fund,” hah! Why don’t they get jobs? Oh because they are ‘graduate students’ and only ‘teach’ or do ‘research.’ This is whole thing is evidence of how professional intellectualism can be a fallible pursuit for some. If these semi-scholars are down on their luck, they should get jobs in other sectors of the economy, perhaps use their semi-valuable minds to give something back to the community at large, rather than idly sit and beg for money on the internet. If the world doesn’t need their sociology papers, then they world will not give them money for it and it might be time to stop pushing sociology papers and instead go work for the phone company. Graduate students… who do they think they are!?


M. Gordon 01.24.06 at 3:38 pm

Eh, we’ve heard it before ‘working girl’. Its been done to death. You’re not adding anything to the debate except noise.


Nat Whilk 01.24.06 at 5:43 pm

You’ve got comments turned on, so I assume you don’t object to discussion per se. Will you accept comments that dispute the point that this is an important cause? If so, what forms of argumentation should we shy away from if we don’t want to be disemvoweled like “working girl” was?


Wheresthe Justice 01.24.06 at 5:52 pm

Seriously…disenvowelation? What is with that? What kind of a person alters legitimate feedback? That is really lame. So at CT it’s “either you are with us, or you are noise.” I hope other people realize this is weak, and poor direction for CT.


Henry 01.24.06 at 6:26 pm

nat – I am happy to accept serious comments that disagree with the claims made. This wasn’t that. It was an unambiguous exercise in trolling for outraged reactions. There wasn’t any claim there beyond an assertion that lazy grad students should get a job except that they’re useless sociologists so they can’t. If there’s any value to comments of this sort, I don’t see it.


Tim 01.24.06 at 6:51 pm

Henry: the only claim you made was that this is an important cause, and that’s what working girl disputed in her heated response (in essence). Remember, too, that you’ve given no evidence in this post to support that assertion (speaking of lazy assertions?).

And how do you tell the difference between “trolling for outraged reactions” and an outraged reaction itself?

This is a complicated situation, and I have sympathies for both you and working girl.

Could you think in terms of explaining to me and her that this situation has implications not only for other grad students but for non-grad-students as well?

Unless this does just apply to grad students, in which case you can try to explain to me how it affects me as a grad student at another school?


Cryptic Ned 01.24.06 at 7:11 pm

I agree that disemvowelment should only be used in extreme cases of monumentally rude and pointless comments. Otherwise, we get a persecution complex among anyone who might possibly have had something critical to say.


Daniel 01.24.06 at 7:16 pm

no, I am an expert on trolling (ask anyone) and that was a straight up troll post. Rather a good one IMO which would quite possibly have started a 50-comment unrelated flamewar had Henry not caught it and moderated it.


Henry 01.24.06 at 7:19 pm

Tim – the reason that the post was short was because I’ve posted frequently on the topic in the past, and because the question has been thrashed out exhaustively in the comments sections to recent posts. For a discussion of the underlying issues, see “here”:, and for shorter posts see “here”:, “here”:, “here”:, “here”: (there are a few more I think which I can’t find). The fundamental issue here is whether people who are clearly _working_ should be allowed to unionize to protect their rights. Either “working girl” doesn’t know this or she doesn’t want to know this – as stated, her post wasn’t anything more than a sneer at purportedly lazy academics, which seemed a calculated attempt to arouse angry responses from other readers. That’s trolling – it doesn’t deserve a response – it deserves either to be ignored, disemvowelled or deleted. In this case my judgment was that disemvowelment was the appropriate response. Others might disagree (and they can still reconstruct the comment if they care to) – but it was my call.


chun the unavoidable 01.24.06 at 7:37 pm

It’s true; Daniel is an expert on trolling.


David Velleman 01.24.06 at 8:45 pm

Unfortunately, none of the posts to which Henry links contains a substantive discussion of the issues. (And the first one contains a crucial misstatement of fact — namely, the claim that graduate students are “cheap labor”.) Of course, Henry’s earlier posts do contain the stirring slgoan “Which side are you on?” And maybe that’s all the discussion that’s needed.


M. Gordon 01.24.06 at 9:14 pm

David: Can you point out which issues you would like to discuss that a) have never been discussed before on Crooked Timber, and b) relate to this post? I personally don’t think disemvoweling working girl’s post was necessary, but it was definitely a troll, and not a very original one at that. Having had more than my share of discussions, conversations, and arguments about grad unionization, I can say pretty definitively that the vast majority of the arguments that people bring to bear fall into a very small number of categories, and I don’t think rehashing any of these warmed-over debates is really a particularly good use of the assembled brain power of the Crooked Timber commentariat, particularly not when they’re framed in such a churlish and ignorant fashion.


Henry 01.24.06 at 11:05 pm

I’m sorry David – but that claim got busted in the last debate. To quote Jacob.

bq. I’ll try again. Which part of this is untrue? Graduate employees perform work that if they were not there, faculty like yourself would perform. They teach students (either in their own classes or as section leaders). They grade papers. They perform research (that is, research for hire for faculty’s projects, rather than their own). Faculty are paid rather more handsomely than graduate employees. If there were no graduate students, the univeristy would have to hire more faculty to do the same work and greater cost. Ergo, graduate employees are cheap labor. Perhaps not dirt cheap, like Houston janitors, but cheaper than the alternative.

Your response back then – that it’s still cheap labour because the university could hire adjuncts, who are even cheaper, instead – seems, on the most charitable interpretation, not to be clearly thought through. A defence mounted on the argument that the university could hire someone instead from a very badly exploited class of actors is a problematic position to take for someone who claims to be on the left. Have you thought through the implications of this claim?

Or, is Scott Lemieux right?:

bq. What Velleman fails to recognize, of course, is that similar arguments could be made about any union. Since collective bargaining generally involves rules that constrain management, it can almost always involve arbitrators who are not experts within a given field making judgments about how the rules apply. (Your random anecdotes also fail, of course, to actually prove that such rules cannot be applied rationally in an academic context-indeed, they suggest the opposite—and of course it would not be hard to compile competing anecdotes about rank cronyism and other irrational factors being part of job assignments, which having exlicit rules and due process could conceivably improve.) We’re expected to take it on blind faith that university administrators have a unique necessity to be unconstrained by labor rules. Why? And, of course, faculty at public universities also presumably apply expertise in deciding who would teach classes, so why can they be constrained by such rules while private teachers can’t? This latter point is just a self-serving non-sequitur, as is the idea that because workers may be better situated than janitors that they are not entitled to fundamental rights.

bq. So we’re back to the original point; if you’re against the ability of grad student instructors to organize, then you’re just anti-labor, or more specifically opportunistically anti-labor when there’s a chance your own interests and power will be affected, which is even worse.

Granted, this is a rather uncharitable reading – but so far, you haven’t given good reason to believe that there isn’t at least a grain of truth in it.


Kenny Easwaran 01.25.06 at 12:41 am

From what I understand, NYU grad students really aren’t terribly poorly off – as you point out, students at other universities might need this much more. I was awakened to this fact at the APA in NYC a few weeks ago. When talking to some CUNY grad students about the NYU situation, I discovered that the CUNY students don’t get tuition waivers for teaching, and only get a few thousand dollars per course, so most of them have to teach (not just TA) two classes every semester just to pay tuition. There’s no question of having a liveable stipend. This is all not to say that the NYU students don’t need some hardship support, but just to point out that the CUNY students need it even more – an NYU student with no work or pay for one semester is probably not as bad off as a CUNY student is in general, because at least the NYU student will eventually be able to get positive cash flow before finishing graduate school.


josh 01.25.06 at 2:55 am

In response to Kenny Easwaran’s comment above, it may be worth pointing out that students at CUNY ARE unionized (though apparently not that many of them elect to join:
The same is true, I believe, at Rutgers, and many other public universities — perhaps all?
This suggests that there isn’t a simple equation between unionisation and the quality of life of grad students. There is far more of a relationship, it seems to me, between the resources of the university, and the quality of life of the grad students — NYU has a good deal more money than does CUNY, as do places like Harvard and Yale, where, based on my own observations, grad students seem to be pretty well off.
But this seems to me somewhat beside the point. Others will differ, of course, but as far as I perceive it, the point of grad student unionisation isn’t so much quality of life, as power. Grad students often feel that they don’t have any real power, as a group, in the university; they may have it good, but their having it good depends on the benevolence of the university, or rather the university administration. Unionisation seems to me more about gaining power so as not to be so dependent and — so say proponents of unionisation — disempowered or disenfranchised, than it is about grad students being underpayed or overworked per se. But I’m not active in the unionisation movement, so this is just speculation.
I’d be interested to hear, though, what proponents of unionisation think about this point — about empowerment vs. well-being as distinct goals, and the former as being more central to the project of grad student unionisation — and also what opponents of unionisation have to say in response to the empowerment argument.


Brandon Berg 01.25.06 at 3:35 am

I suppose one could make a semi-plausible case (not necessarily a valid one, but I don’t want to get into that now) for the need for unions in the non-academic sector. Everyone has to be able to support himself somehow.

But no one really needs a Ph.D. to lead a dignified and fulfilling life. And if the relationship between supply and demand for graduate students in a particular field is such that universities can offer them very low wages (a description not applicable to $19,000 per year plus a tuition waiver for a job which is neither full-time nor year-round) and still be able to get as many as they need, and if the salaries of jobs open to a Ph.D. in this field are not high enough to justify going into debt to make up the difference, doesn’t that tell us that it might not be such a bad thing if we had fewer people spending ten years of their lives pursuing advanced degrees in these fields?

I’m not rich, but I do get paid quite a bit more than NYU graduate students, even with tuition waiver factored in (although perhaps not on an hourly basis). I’m not in a unionized industry, and yet I have no illusions about the conditions of my employment being due to the benevolence of my employer. They treat me well because they know that I’d go elsewhere if they didn’t. Why is it that graduate students need to unionize to feel empowered when I don’t?


Brandon Berg 01.25.06 at 3:42 am

To anticipate a possible objection to my question above, I’ll grant that it’s easier for me to change jobs than it is for a graduate student (although it might not be if I owned a home and had children and a working wife). But if working conditions are a significant factor in choosing a graduate school, then universities still are not free to set wages arbitrarily low, because their current employees are constantly leaving as they graduate and must be replaced with new ones.


Sam Dodsworth 01.25.06 at 7:34 am

Why is it that graduate students need to unionize to feel empowered when I don’t?

Perhaps because, being nearer the bottom of the heap, they have a better idea of where the balance of power really lies. Not to mention less to lose.


GKurtz 01.25.06 at 9:52 am

Several people in this conversation–not just David, Kenny, and the troll but also to some extent Josh–seem to be heading into a conversation with the premise: “only dirt-poor people should seek higher pay than they already have.” Josh, you may not intend this, but the way you cast the power/pay distinction makes one sound legit and one illegit. What’s up with this? As soon as the conversation about graduate employee unions (or any union, actually — think of the whining from people who thought the NYC transit workers shouldn’t make a decent living because they don’t have college degrees) degenerates into a “they don’t really have it so bad” argument, the principle at stake gets completely lost. People who work for a living should be able to act collectively (through bargaining, strikes, whatever) to have a say in their working conditions, to try to work as little as possible for as much money as possible. Isn’t that the point of civilization: to have resources and free time? Sure, Josh, it’s about power and respect, as with any case of unionization, but it’s also about money, partly because money matters, even if you’re not penniless, and partly because money is one of the languages in which respect is expressed, in the workplace.

Brandon: You write that your employer treats you well because they know you could leave if you wanted to. Well, they’d also have an incentive to treat you well if you had a union. The way you describe the situation, it’s as if a union is a last resort for people who have no other means of getting a better deal. No way: a union should be the first option. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of the labor market: *you* have to make all the sacrifices, by switching jobs (or being prepared to do so at any time). (And what does “feeling” empowered have to do with it?)

For the record, though: The NYU Teaching Assistant stipend for 2004-2005 was 18,000. More than we (TAs) make here at Rutgers, sure, and more than CUNY TAs make, but not exactly princely. How many of you have lived in NYC on less than 20k a year? It can be done, and somewhat comfortably, but you’d be crazy not to push for more if you could.

Thanks, Henry, for posting the link to the strike fund. This is important.


Kenny Easwaran 01.25.06 at 1:55 pm

gkurtz – I was trying not to give that impression, though I suppose it was inevitable given what I was saying. I definitely support the striking NYU graduate students and the transit workers and all that. But I was just suggesting that if there’s going to be a charity, there are other graduate students not too far away that need it even more. I’m surprised to learn that CUNY has a union, but I guess given the state of finances at that university it’s perhaps not surprising that the union can’t get much more.

As for Brandon Berg’s comment about not having (or needing) a union – the main word I’d like to add is “yet”. For a long time, computer programmers had no need for a union, because they were in high demand and low supply, so they could get what they wanted from companies. But about seven years ago, I started hearing my parents complain about a lot of practices, and these days it seems tough for programmers to keep their jobs given overseas competition. If they had unionized ten years ago, some of these problems might have been averted.


mpowell 01.25.06 at 2:45 pm

This debate always seems really weird to me. I just don’t understand how people can argue that grad students shouldn’t want to or shouldn’t be allowed to unionize. It all comes back to the pretty simple matter that gkurtz highlights- people would be crazy not to push for more money if they could. And you have to be anti-labor to argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to.

That being said, I’m not particularly sympathetic to the grad students’ cause. What I mean is that I’m not likely to donate to their fund or whatever. And my reason is pretty simple: people who choose to be grad students generally have other better options. And they also aren’t at the very bottom anyhow. So my attitude is: more power to them if they can do better, but don’t look to me for help. I’m surprised that so few people seem to hold this position. I guess its b/c most of you guys are in academics so it impacts most of you pretty strongly one way or the other.


djw 01.25.06 at 3:33 pm

I’m surprised that so few people seem to hold this position.

Probably because for many of us absolute deprivation rate is only one factor amongst many in our allotment of charity. To take your logic a bit further, there’d be no plausible justification for financially supporting any strike fund in the US or the West generally, as there are much worse off and needy people than even janitors and farm workers all over the world. I’m not criticizing this criteria for allocating charity, it’s not a bad one I don’t think. But it does diverge pretty sharply from how just about everyone actually allocates charitable resources.


Cala 01.25.06 at 3:41 pm

Point of clarification: I thought NYU had decided not to blacklist TA’s that had struck, and so pay this semester wasn’t affected by last semester’s strike.

Is this information inaccurate?


eweininger 01.25.06 at 4:25 pm

A small point of clarification: CUNY grad students do not have their “own” union; they have the option of joining the Professional Staff Congress, which is the full-timer’s (i.e. tenured/tenure trackers’) union. Or at least that was the situation when I left in 01. At the same time, there was a great deal of agitation among grad students over the level of representation provided them by the PSC. Things may have changed since, though on the basis of what I learn from my friends who are still in the system, I doubt it has been dramatic.

Living in NYC on


eweininger 01.25.06 at 4:28 pm


josh 01.25.06 at 4:38 pm

In response to gkurtz: I certainly don’t think that only dirt poor people should seek more money than they already have, and don’t think I said anything to give that impression (on the other hand, I am more sympathetic to the struggle of poor people to earn more than they do, than to the efforts of people who are already well off to do so; this doesn’t mean that I oppose the latter, but my sympathies are stirred less strongly, and I’m less likely to become active on their behalf. Surely this isn’t such a strange position?) Nor did I mean the distinction between power and pay to be one between legitimacy and illegitimacy. I did, however, mean to suggest that focussing attention only on the issue of pay is likely to make us miss the reason that many people support grad student unionisation. And I do think that the pay argument, while not illegitimate, is a less compelling one in many cases, precisely because, in many cases of grad student unionisation, people CAN (and, as we’ve seen, do) make the argument that grad students don’t have it so bad, pay-wise; whereas the argument about power seems to me harder to dismiss.
Also, on the issue of respect that gkurtz raises: I would associate respect, in this case, more with power than with wages, though certainly low wages suggests a lack of respect; but the point is, in many cases the wages that grad students at private uinversities are paid aren’t insulting or humiliating, and the respect issues are connected to lack of power, including collective bargaining rights, rather than poor pay. Gkurtz raises these issues as if they’re connected to pay, and focussing on power ignores them; but they seem to me distinct from pay, and more closely connected to power.
I’d also point out that there are issues with working conditions other than pay. At least at some of the universities with which I’m familiar, the grievances of pro-union students seem to be more about having to teach too much, or teach classes that they don’t want to and aren’t qualified to teach, or being relied upon to do teaching that should be done by (a shrinking pool of tenured) faculty, than it is about not getting enough money. Which is why, for the advocates of grad student unionisation I know, the issue of whether grad students are economically disadvantaged or inadequately payed isn’t the main issue.
In other words, it isn’t that pay isn’t a valid reason for efforts to unionise grad students, at NYU or elsewhere; it’s that pay isn’t the only, or even the most important, reason.


Daniel 01.25.06 at 6:37 pm

But I was just suggesting that if there’s going to be a charity, there are other graduate students not too far away that need it even more.

No they don’t; they’re not on strike.


mpowell 01.25.06 at 6:40 pm


I think there is another important criterion which is that grad school is generally an optional vocation for reasonably intelligent people who could therefore be otherwise profitably employed. When you are talking about coal miners in West Virginia, that is really not the case. So even though there may be people worse off elsewhere, the coal miners do get more of my support. And maybe I’m mistaken, but I find it hard to believe that looking at it this way, a lot of people wouldn’t agree.

I’ve observed people in these comment threads suggest similar sentiments, but they usually follow it up with at least somewhat disparaging remarks about their unionization efforts. But I’ll cheer them on instead.


GKurtz 01.25.06 at 6:50 pm

Kenny & Josh, I don’t think we’re disagreeing substantially. What I wanted to respond to was the general squeemishness in this discussion about the issue of pay, and it seemed to me that you each had, perhaps unintentionally, contributed to that.

As for the idea that contributing to the strike fund is an act of “charity” — maybe this is a Britishism (I don’t know who in this discussion is from where) or something, but I cringe at that word in this context. “Charity,” to my ears, means the kind of direct meeting of needs you get through, say, a soup kitchen. Politics–including union politics–is something else, and political decisions are (or should be) governed by more strategic and less emotional criteria than charitable decisions (Weber, anyone?): whether the plight of NYU grad students pulls our heart-strings matters less than the importance of the NYU strike in the broader academic labor movement, and the place of the academic labor movement in the US labor movement in general. By both of those criteria, I’d say the NYU strike is fairly important–but that’s a longer argument (parts of which have been covered before on Crooked Timber–see the posts Henry links to in comment #9).


Matt Weiner 01.25.06 at 7:10 pm

eweininger: To make a < type &lt;


eweininger 01.25.06 at 8:23 pm

Thanks. I guess the intended point is clear enough!


Matt Weiner 01.25.06 at 9:34 pm

I messed up — should be &lt;

(I take it the point is it’s hard to live in NYC on a small salary.)


Matt Weiner 01.25.06 at 9:34 pm

OK, now I messed up again, and I didn’t look at the preview:



Matt Weiner 01.25.06 at 9:35 pm

No, I’m pretty sure the preview was acting flaky. Or my browser is. Anyway, type this without the spaces.

& l t ;


djw 01.26.06 at 4:25 pm

mpowell, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable criteria, whether narrowly or broadly drawn. I expect a fair number of people would agree with your narrow version of it, although if they were to apply the principle more broadly they’d balk (there are quite literally billions of people worse off than West Virginia coal miners in this world…).

Another criteria for those of us in academia or related fields has to do with both the health/well-being (as well as justice) regarding how people are treated in our profession. When University administrations (and, sadly, enabling faculty) use reactionary Bush-appointee NLRB decisions to bust unions and threaten the livelihoods (and therefore careers) of graduate students, well, that feels like our business. At least it does to me. I feel as though I have an interest in being part of a profession that reacts strongly against this sort of treatment. Just another rationale for me, and probably for a number of readers of this blog, who skew toward that profession.

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