Day 10 on the Picket Line

Neither NYU graduate students nor administrators show signs of budging in battle over a TA union.
November 22, 2005

Striking New York University graduate students  trickled toward the picket line at 8 a.m. Monday, continuing the strike prompted by the university’s decision to end recognition of the graduate student union this summer. There has been no official contact between university and union officials, but strike supporters say their resolve is as strong as ever. Today will be their 10th day on strike.

“I feel good,” said Michael Palm, head of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee,  the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers that represents NYU graduate assistants. “We knew it would take a while, and we’re in it for as long as it takes.”

Because NYU was previously the only private university to recognize a graduate student union, the outcome of the strike is considered important far beyond Greenwich Village. If the union can force NYU to bargain with it, that would provide a strong reinforcement to organizing drives at other private universities, which have largely been beaten back by a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that private universities need not recognize such unions. If NYU prevails, the resolve of other universities to resist unionization may well be strengthened.

Strike leaders said that faculty member support is as strong as ever. They said that requests from supportive faculty members seeking to move classes off-campus have continued to come in, bringing the total number of faculty member requests to around 650. Some courses are already being taught in bars, churches, apartments, and at least one black box theater. Molly Nolan, a history professor, said that, as far as she knows, faculty members who moved their classes off campus when the strike began have kept those courses off campus. Nolan and other faculty members teaching off campus said that, while some students are unhappy about running around the city to class, attendance has mostly been normal.

Neither the university nor the union knows how many of the 165 courses – out of 2,700 total – that use graduate student as the primary instructor have been cancelled. GSOC says it speaks for about 1,000 graduate students, about three-quarters of whom help with courses, in most cases by grading or holding recitation sections.

John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, said that, for students who have had classes cancelled or moved, the disturbance “probably doesn’t feel minor. But, generally, for the university as a whole, that’s how it is.”

One question faculty members are beginning to discuss is how to handle grading. Some faculty members who support the strike do not want to replace the labor of a striking graduate student by taking over grading. Nolan said that faculty members would have to decide how to handle it individually, with one option being to give incompletes. Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies and a strong supporter for the teaching assistants’ union, said that the grading issue “will be the next big debate here. The initial hope was that there would be some movement by the administration in the first week-and-a-half or two.”

Ross added that a recent incident in which the university gave deans access to electronic bulletin boards used by faculty members galvanized faculty support. On the second day of the strike, some faculty members became aware that two deans had been given access to their accounts on Blackboard, a course management system that allows professors to post material and e-mail the class. The university said that departments were consulted before the deans were added to accounts, and that the access was only supposed to be for courses taught primarily by graduate students. Beckman said that the added access in courses taught by faculty members was a technical mistake that was quickly corrected, and that access was removed in other cases where faculty members said it wasn’t needed.

Some faculty interpreted the change as administrative spying and held a teach-in, which drew more than 300 students, to discuss the issue. Ross said that the Blackboard issue “really did outrage a lot of faculty who were hitherto not vocal.”

Undergraduates are also taking an active role. The undergraduate run Graduate/Undergraduate Solidarity Committee, which has had several dozen undergraduates at recent meetings, has called for all undergraduates to play hooky on November 30 to show support for the strike.

So far, no pay has been docked for those on strike, but, with no end in sight, GSOC has been encouraging members to sign up for benefits,  which would kick in if pay checks do start dwindling or disappearing. Striking graduate students would receive $200 a week from the union, in the area of half of what a typical graduate assistant might make, and health care.

In a move that union officials see as an attempt to bait strikers back to the classroom, three deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences sent out a memo  Wednesday proposing capping the number of courses that graduate assistants can teach at one per semester. Some graduate assistants currently teach multiple courses in a single semester. Stipends would not change, and the memo says that that the policy, which the deans hope will take effect next semester, would “primarily affect our languages and literature programs.”

Catharine Stimpson, a dean and one of the co-authors, said that standardizing the teaching load at a level that gives graduate students ample time for professional development is something that students and faculty members have long asked for. Stimpson said that, because of the timing of the proposal, she expected to be accused of “offering a carrot” to striking graduate students.

She was right. “I don’t think they’re fooling anybody with that,” Palm said. “The reaction I heard [from graduate assistants] was, ‘if you want to do something like that, let’s bargain about it.’ We’re not in it for less work, we’re in it for a contract.”

Stimpson said that she “wants people to be happy here,” adding that teaching load has always been an academic question, and not part of the previous contract.   



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