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Hitting Them in the Pocket

Hitting Them in the Pocket
November 29, 2005

Since November 9, striking New York University graduate assistants have still been getting paychecks. But Monday, NYU let the picketers know the cash flow will soon be squeezed off.

“Graduate assistants who do not resume their duties by December 5 or the first scheduled teaching assignment thereafter … will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach,” reads the e-mail from President John Sexton to all graduate assistants. Later in the letter, Sexton says that students who do not report for duty will actually lose their stipend and assignments for the next two semesters, not just the spring.

The 1,386-word letter acknowledged that students on strike “have been acting out of conscience,” but said that the strike “should not be pursued any longer at the expense of undergraduates.” Even if they remain on strike and lose their stipends, graduate students will be allowed to continue taking classes. Graduate students who lose their stipend will receive $200 a week, about half of what an average graduate assistant might make, from the union. NYU will continue to pay for graduate students’ health insurance and classes, and will offer loans in lieu of stipends.

Sexton did say in the letter that graduate students will be given contracts from now on, but not through negotiations with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers. NYU stopped negotiating with the union this summer. The contracts will document the conditions of each assistantship, including the $1,000 minimum raises each of the next three years that NYU promised this summer, but that graduate assistants called a red herring.

Michael Palm, head of GSOC, said that the letter shows that Sexton is “movable,” because “the timing of the e-mail means they want us back in time to do the grading. They’re trying to say we’re not workers, but they’re increasing the penalty for withholding work.”

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said that the university wants “to get them back before we get into exam periods, so students in their classes can continue to learn.” He added that graduate assistants still should not be considered workers. “Nobody ever denied that they had educational responsibilities. We don’t hire graduate assistants, we admit graduate students. The most promising among them get stipends, full tuition, health care.”

The letter also acknowledged that graduate assistantships have not always been perfectly crafted, sometimes requiring too much teaching at the expense of academic and professional development. Sexton pointed out a proposal last week from three deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to limit the number of language and literature courses graduate assistants teach to one per semester. Sexton called it “a first step.”

But striking graduate students made it clear last week that, while they support the teaching cap, they want such decisions to be made at the collective bargaining table.

Union officials said that they hope to hold meetings as soon as possible to gauge member reaction to the strict date of December 5, and to prepare for the coming weeks. The letter said that the days until then are a period of “amnesty,” which “represents a balance between our respect for the principled positions of those choosing to strike and our obligation to undergraduates.”

Graduate assistants are primary instructors in 165 of NYU’s 2,700 courses, and about three-quarters of the hundreds who are on strike help with other courses in some way, whether through grading, or holding recitation sections. Some classes have been cancelled, while others have been moved off campus by graduate assistants and supportive faculty members. NYU has offered increased tutoring for undergraduates during the strike, and is allowing students to take courses pass/fail even after they receive a grade.

Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies and a strong advocate for the teaching assistants’ union, sent an e-mail to supportive faculty members in response to Sexton's letter. The e-mail called the president’s statement “much more punitive than many of us imagined … the threat is plain and Draconian to all.” Ross noted that the decision was made without consultation with faculty members.

Catharine Stimpson, one of the deans who made the teaching cap proposal, said that the university has given graduate students time to answer the “calls of their conscience,” but “that now the costs to undergrads are unsupportable.” In previous weeks, NYU officials have characterized the overall disruption as minor, while noting that it is major to students who are directly affected. Stimpson said that “it’s about the quality of the classes, not the quantity.”

The undergraduate-run Graduate/Undergraduate Solidarity Committee has called for a walkout by all students on Wednesday. “The first thing our members want to do is redouble our efforts to have a strong showing Wednesday,” Palm said.

 

 

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