Digging In

NYU students and professors prepare for a strike that could last a long time.
November 11, 2005

 New York University graduate students, dozens at a time, took turns manning the picket lines for the second day Thursday. With no official contact between the graduate student union and the university, which ended  recognition of the union this summer, strikers are thinking about the long haul.

Frederic Laliberte, a math graduate student, marched energetically -- for the second straight day -- around the pen created by blue police barriers. "As long as it takes," he said, explaining how many more days he'd be willing to march. Behind him, protesters with signs and yellow arm bands chanted, "Why do we have a W-2? Shame on you, NYU," with the "shame on you" directed at President John Sexton when he emerged from his office with a cup of coffee.

Some of Laliberte's colleagues weren't quite as sanguine about the future. Another math grad student on the picket line called the situation in the department "intense," and said that he would have to consider leaving the picket line if the strike drags on. The student, who did not want to be identified, referenced a letter sent to graduate students in the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences that invokes the prospect of punishment.

The letter, from Richard Cole, Courant's acting director, reminded students that they had been chosen "to be supported with an assistantship," and that "those who impede our students' efforts to pursue their education by disrupting classes -- which has very real consequences for students -- should anticipate that there are likely to be appropriate consequences." The graduate student noted that some faculty members distanced themselves from the letter, but that "you have to be careful about your career."

So far, according to John Beckman, NYU's vice president for university relations, the university has not hired replacement labor or docked any pay. He wrote in an e-mail message that hopefully it will not come to it, but that "there may come a point where we have to have that conversation." The Graduate Student Organizing Committee will pay striking graduate students $200 per week if NYU stops paying them, in the vicinity of half of what a typical graduate assistant might make. Organizers also had a cardboard "hardship" box for donations. Andrew Jackson, in the form of a $20 bill, peered out of the top slit.

Beckman continued to call the disruption "minor," noting that graduate assistants are primary instructors in only 165 out of 2,700 classes on any given day. "Of those [165 classes], some are still being taught, some are being taught off campus, and some are not being taught." He said he did not know how many more courses use graduate assistants to lead sections or to grade papers. Officials of GSOC, a local affiliate of the United Auto Workers that represents NYU graduate assistants, said that, of around 1,000 members, approximately 75 percent help with courses, mostly in the form of holding recitations or grading. The officials said that it is impossible for them to know how many of those graduate assistants are on strike right now. Before the strike began, the union officials said, around 400 faculty members were looking for spaces off campus to hold classes, so they would not cross the picket lines.

Though neither side seems to know the exact extent of the strike's impact, those on the picket line like to think it is great, while some graduate assistants who have continued teaching as usual are hardly bothered. Radu Gabudean, a doctoral student in the Stern School of Business, will continue grading papers in Foundations of Financial Markets as he has all semester. Gabudean said he hated the fact that, when the union was recognized by NYU, he had to pay dues whether he liked it or not. He said that unions make sense when employees have no choices, but that NYU graduate students chose the institution, and are free to leave. "Also," he added, "you are paid to teach those kids, and they depend on you, and just to leave them out in the blue, it's kind of unreasonable."

David Scicchitano, a biology professor, said his three graduate assistants have continued to hold recitations, and that, for him, the strike has been "utterly uneventful," he said. "It has affected me not at all."

Molly Nolan, a history professor and strong supporter of the union, has moved her classes off campus. Like all of the faculty members interviewed who had moved courses -- to apartments, bars, billiard halls and other venues -- Nolan said she would keep class off campus until a resolution is reached. She still is not sure whether to take over the grading work of her graduate assistant, or to leave it be as a sign of support. If the strike goes on for long, Nolan said faculty members "will have to do decide what to do ... whether to grade or give incompletes."

Kristin Campbell, a senior and organizer at the Graduate/Undergraduate Solidarity Committee,  said about 25 undergraduates showed up to a meeting Wednesday to talk about future actions, like a one day walkout. As to the prospect of getting an incomplete from a professor supporting the strike, "I have faith they wouldn't do that to us," Campbell said. Beckman said that students would certainly get grades. Nolan added that she might Podcast lectures as the strike goes on, or that she might use Blackboard, a course management system that allows professors to post material and e-mail the class.

One professor, however, will not be using Blackboard again any time soon. 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. 

A letter from two deans in the College of Arts and Sciences to faculty members said that the problem has been corrected, and that "while this was done openly -- the names appear clearly on each Blackboard "shell" as additional instructors -- and with extensive consultation, it would have been better if there had been complete consultation and advance notification." Beckman said that, in departments that said they did not need the help of the associate deans, the Blackboard access was removed.


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