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No More Pay Days

January 25, 2006

Some striking graduate students at New York University may have received their last NYU paychecks for at least two semesters.

“The Office of the Provost has determined that the following course is not meeting,” read a letter from from NYU to Amy LeClair, a striking sociology graduate student. The letter was referring to a statistics course that LeClair was slated to teach to undergraduates.

The letter goes on to tell LeClair that her tuition and health care will continue to be paid, but that her “stipend will be withdrawn for two semesters.”

The move is the latest step in a labor dispute that has had some NYU graduate assistants out on strike since November 9. The dispute began this summer when NYU announced it would no longer recognize the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers that represents NYU graduate assistants.

In a November letter, NYU president John Sexton warned striking graduate assistants who accepted teaching assignments that their stipends and teaching eligibility would be withdrawn for two semesters if they did not return to class by December 5. The administration then pushed that date back to December 7 in response to a request by the Graduate Affairs Committee of the student government. Still, no pay had been docked until letters, like the one LeClair got, were sent out on Monday. LeClair said she told her department that she would remain on strike, but that she had been slated to teach her spring course since the summer.

Critics of the NYU administration harshly condemned the November letter that mentioned withdrawing stipends, calling the prospect “punitive” and “draconian.”

“This is retaliatory,” said Susan Valentine, a striking history graduate assistant and a union spokeswoman. “You’re going to be punished for the rest of the semester and the semester going forward.”

Critics of the strike, however, have often said they are surprised NYU continued to pay stipends for so long, when, in many strikes, those on the picket line are not paid at all.

So far, GSOC members said they only know of three graduate students who got the letter, and it seemed that few were sent out, and only to graduate assistants who were primary course instructors. Many of those on strike normally assist professors with grading and discussion sections, but aren’t the primary instructors. John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said that “the vast majority of graduate assistants seem to be filling their responsibilities. We’ve encountered a small handful of graduate assistants who accepted assignments for the second semester and failed to meet their classes.”

Both the administration and GSOC have said in the past that it could be difficult to pinpoint striking students when withdrawing stipends. But LeClair said she thinks her case was pretty obvious.

She said that there were some students registered for her course at the beginning of the semester, but that, “after the first week, the enrollment dropped to zero,” fingering her course as one with an absent teacher. LeClair said that she wasn’t exactly surprised by the development. “I went out on strike not thinking there would be no consequences,” she said.

Still, she called the loss of her stipend “kind of a kick in the pants,” and said she misses teaching. “What’s frustrating for me is that I love to teach,” LeClair said. “That’s why I’m getting a Ph.D. I would much rather be in the classroom, but I’m being told I’m not a worker, but I have all the responsibilities of a worker.”

Some graduate assistants, in anticipation of losing their stipends, spent winter vacation looking for jobs. LeClair, a Manhattan resident, said she took out more loans at the beginning of the year in preparation. NYU is making student loans available for those who want them in lieu of stipends.

The union will pay members who lose their stipends $200 a week, about half of an average stipend, and GSOC has a strike fund for emergency needs.

NYU has about 1,000 graduate assistants, and about 165 of NYU’s 2,700 courses have a graduate assistant as the primary instructor. Throughout the strike, it has been unclear both to NYU and to GSOC exactly how many graduate students have been on strike, and some left the picket line last semester at the urging of advisors or in the interest of saving their stipends.

For LeClair, however, class will remain dismissed. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” she said. “Or my lack of money where my mouth is.”

 

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