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A Strike Falters

April 4, 2006

Labor activists in New York City gathered last month to mark the 95th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that left 146 dead, and that spurred sweeping labor reforms. The delegation from New York University's union of graduate students didn't have to travel far. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is now NYU's biology building.

Those graduate students are currently creating union history of a different kind, as a strike by some graduate assistants, now in its 16th week, has failed so far to bring the university to the bargaining table. Clearly, change in this case will not come about in a single fiery flash. What's unclear is whether today's history is one of a union that overestimated its strength or of a victory that will be quite a while in coming. In the short term, NYU appears well on its way to returning private higher education to non-union status with regard to teaching assistants.

Those NYU graduate students who want a union have been embroiled in their own labor struggle since the summer, when NYU stopped recognizing the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, a local affiliate of the United Auto Workers, and the only official graduate assistant union at a private institution. The union won major improvements in wages and benefits during its four-year contract, but NYU says it will provide gains even without a union.

When the university announced it would no longer bargain with the union, it also announced $1,000  raises each year for the next three years, a move union supporters labeled a red herring. NYU has continued to pay tuition and health care for all striking graduate assistants, but GSOC contends that an inferior health care plan was instituted as soon as the union was unrecognized. The university said that, as in past years under the contract, rising health care costs periodically result in changes in coverage levels.

Hundreds of graduate assistants walked off the job on November 9, but NYU says that the vast majority of graduate assistants who had primary teaching responsibilities are back at work. In the math department, for example, the half-dozen students who did decide to strike all returned last semester, some citing pressure from advisors. And though hundreds of graduate students, primarily in the humantieis and social sciences -- participation from the sciences has been much less vigorous --
who help with grading and discussion sections walked-out last semester, NYU says that all grades were completed. Some students contend that grades rolled in late, but NYU insists that some grades are late every semester, and this year was nothing out of the ordinary.

Many others, faced with losing their stipends, are back at work. The picket lines are smaller than they were last semester, but, with New York thawed from the winter, dozens of graduate students are back to marching in circles and beating drums in Greenwich Village, punctuated by the occasional honk of support. Graduate assistants on a number of other private institutions are watching closely to see which way the pendulum will swing for graduate student unions.

International graduate assistants, faced with possibly losing their visas if they lost work assignments, seem to have largely returned to work, even while the vigor of their sentiment has not dulled a bit.

Jelena Karanovic, a seventh year anthropology student, has been at NYU since before GSOC, when the average graduate assistant stipend was more like $11,000 than the $19,000 it is today. Karanovic, a native of Croatia, said that she needs a year extension on her visa, and, afraid she wouldn't get it without working, she returned from the strike to teach, even though she is a strong GSOC supporter. "It was too much pressure," she said, adding that the financial pressure was on top of her advisers telling here that "we understand," she said, "but their idea was to pick your battles." Karanovic still wants to help GSOC in any way she can, but said that the stipend threats "humiliated" her, and now there are "periods of much more tension in our department."

Graduate assistants who were slated to be the primary instructor for a course, and have remained on strike, have lost their stipends once the university has gotten wind that a class is not meeting. According to NYU and GSOC, 23 graduate assistants lost stipends. Of NYU's 2,700 courses, about 165 use graduate assistants as primary instructors. Hundreds more of NYU's graduate assistants help with grading and hold discussion sections, and neither GSOC nor NYU has a good estimate of how many of those graduate assistants are withholding work. NYU officials point to the fact that every undergraduate got their grades -- albeit some students say they were delayed -- for last semester even with the strike, and that only 23 primary instructors seem still to be out, as signs that the strikes impact is waning.

John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, has continued to debunk GSOC's contentions that the university is not functioning at full speed. "The bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of teaching assistants are teaching classes," Beckman said. "Life is normal, and the university is not going to recognize a graduate assistant union."

Some of the striking primary instructors who resisted pressure to return have watched other graduate students fill their slots. Naomi Schiller, an anthropology graduate student, lost her stipend and said that a colleague who went back is now teaching her course.

With NYU refusing to budge on union recognition, GSOC supporters are hoping to ramp up the campaign for outside help. Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, spoke at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire anniversary of the "need to make sure academia is not only a job for the rich," she said. "The workers at NYU have been on strike for months and we need to stand in solidarity with them." Though Quinn and several other influential city politicians have been strong GSOC supporters, NYU's decision to stop negotiating with GSOC had nothing to do with city politics. It is unclear what power the city has since NYU labor relations are governed by federal law, which as currently interpreted gives the university the right to ignore the union.

It was a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that classified graduate assistants as students, rather than workers, that opened the door for NYU. That decision only applied to private institutions, and there are still many TA unions at public universities in states that permit collective bargaining in public higher education.

The university said that the union was interfering with academic decisions, drawing out grievance proceedings, and, while important in improving life for graduate students a few years ago, is no longer needed. Quinn' office has not responded to multiple attempts ask whether she plans to take any action on behalf of GSOC.

NYU adjuncts are also represented by a local affiliate of UAW, and some GSOC supporters have suggested that the adjuncts go on strike in support of GSOC in an effort to deal NYU a crippling blow. Officials at the adjunct union said that they support GSOC, but have a no-strike clause in their contract. And while hundreds of faculty members strongly support GSOC, their resolutions and condemnations seem to be having little tangible effect. Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies and a strong advocate for the teaching assistants' union, said that several of his colleagues are considering a move, and that NYU's union stance is one factor they are considering. There have been no reports, however, of a faculty member actually leaving because of the graduate student strike.

And while some classes have been moved off campus -- to the delight of some undergraduates who support the strike, and the annoyance of others who now need taxis or the subway to get to class -- faculty members are still teaching them.

Looking for a boost in the strike campaign, some UAW higher-ups are getting involved. In recent weeks, Elizabeth Bunn, secretary treasurer of the national union, has started spending some time in New York, and said that the UAW is prepared to "put in more resource" to flex its influence if need be. The involvement of national union officials, like Bunn, is a recent development, and, though Bunn would not talk strategy, GSOC supporters think it signals a coming push from UAW.

Ross hopes that UAW "is ready to spend political capital on this," he said. "We haven't seen a lot of evidence of this. It's not a criticism, it's just what we've observed."

Bunn added that "from everyone's perspective, this is very national in scope." Indeed, graduate students at other institutions that have blocked unions are keenly interested in what happens. Angela Mazaris, a graduate student at Brown University -- which has also relied on the NLRB to block unionization -- took part in fundraiser at Brown for GSOC.

Though various compromises have been proposed, Mazaris, like the leaders of GSOC, is adamant that nothing short of union recognition could be called a victory. She said that, after unionization was blocked at Brown, many of the pro-union leaders graduated, and those still around are "kind of burned out." She added that the NLRB ruling -- which many GSOC supporters say they expect to change with a new presidential administration, if a Democrat is elected -- left the union movement at private institutions "really weak."

One source who closely follows graduate employee unions said that if UAW does launch a major campaign to try to embarrass NYU and impede its ability to expand in New York City, the university, even if it stands firm on the union, will not "come out on top smelling like a rose." Other experts who have followed the controversy say that it will likely take a new presidential administration and a new NLRB to make any major change.

Bill Herman, a graduate student and union supporter at the University of Pennsylvania, where a union was also blocked,  said that he thinks GSOC still has significant leverage. Originally, NYU told striking graduate assistants that they would lose their teaching assignments, and corresponding stipends, not only for the semester they missed, but for the following semester as well. Hundreds of faculty members condemned the second semester punishment as excessively punitive, and NYU recently decided to forgo the second semester punishment for some of the 23 graduate assistants. "The fact that they've gone back on that," Herman said, "GSOC has forced their hand."

But even as union leaders see signs of strength, others say that the union has lost and needs to move on.

When the strike started, the editorial board of The Washington Square News, NYU's student paper chastised the administration for not making "a good-faith effort to negotiate with the union."

But recent editorials have been scathing toward GSOC. In a March 21 editorial titled "GSOC, it's time to be honest," the board wrote of what it called GSOC's "dwindling" visible support. The article goes on to call the UAW's pledge of increased support "disingenuous," and advises GSOC to "admit that the strike is floundering."

Still, though the picket lines have visibly shrunk, Susan Valentine, a striking history graduate student and union spokeswoman, said that she "wouldn't still be out here if I didn't think we could win."

Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at City University of New York's Hunter College, said that a political push from UAW materializes, it could help. He said that, in the long run, it's difficult for an institution to run counter to "its immediate political environment."

Even if the chips are down for graduate student unions at private institutions, Boris added, if they persist, "historically, they do ultimately win. Ultimately, I don't think it's possible to arrest the desire of people to bargain collectively in the long term." But that, of course, doesn't mean that those walking picket lines will necessarily get what they want.

Gulseren Mutlu, an NYU economics graduate student from Turkey who was one of two -- of about 100 -- graduate assistants in the economics department to go on strike. "Our department is not supportive at all," she said, and her peers and advisers "don't understand why I'd be endangering myself." Mutlu said she's concerned that, like her, so many students are back at work. But she noted that when GSOC was first recognized, "it was a four-year campaign, they were doing the same thing back then." No matter what happens, the strike has changed Mutlu's academic career. "In Econ 101 most professors teach that unions are bad for market equilibrium," she said. "Now I point out that what we say is only true in a perfect market -- we aren't in a perfect market."

 

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