New York University’s president faced chants, rants, hisses and banners Tuesday as he held a special meeting on his plan to stop negotiating with a graduate student union.
The university called the town hall meeting after announcing plans last month to stop dealing  with the United Auto Workers local that represents teaching assistants. At the same time, the university promised raises and new platforms for graduate student input.
The square-off at NYU over graduate student unionization is being watched nationally because the university has been the only private institutions to recognize collective bargaining for teaching assistants. The university’s reversal on recognition has cheered other private universities and outraged union supporters -- with both sides seeing NYU as a pivotal battle.
The university said the union had tried to interfere with academic decisions, and Sexton cited salary grievances filed by the union that resulted in “enormous consumption of time and resources, and they didn’t go anywhere.” Sexton said that viewing graduate students as workers was a “conceptual mistake,” and said the “university tried it, but it did not work.” He acknowledged the union’s role in improving the pay and working conditions for graduate assistants, and added that NYU is still committed to good labor practices.
Nearly every one of the dozens of students, faculty members, and public officials who spoke at the meeting – and most of the 300 audience members who periodically shouted their views -- expressed a distrust of NYU’s pledges.
"It is my assumption that we all enter the conversation with high confidence in each other’s good will,” Sexton said. His words were greeted with jeers. “You gotta earn trust,” one audience member yelled.
As he did for the entire two hours, Sexton politely ignored the interruptions, including the fire alarm that went off while he told the crowd “It is very unlikely that the decision [on the union] will change, ... but I’m committed to mobilizing voice in things like this meeting.” And mobilize voice he did, as NYU community members stepped to the microphone.
NYU officials have pointed out that faculty members are divided about graduate student unionization, and indeed the university has put forward the names of professors of a variety of political views who are happy to see the union go away. But many speakers Tuesday said that the university has overstated the extent of faculty opposition to the union, and they challenged administrators to release the e-mail responses that they received when they sought comment on what to do about the union. The e-mail, “if made public, would show how the community feels,” said Nancy Regalado, a French professor. Sexton said he hoped to release the e-mail messages, but needed to consider privacy issues, because some of those who sent in reactions did not expect them to become public.
Regalado said the union has improved relations between faculty members and graduate students, and that, unlike Yale and Columbia Universities, where graduate student unions have not been recognized, NYU will suffer from losing one.
“We don’t have the generations of alumni who will donate no matter what, and the students who will come no matter what,” Regalado added. “NYU is a choice. It’s hot right now, and it would be a shame to see that disappear because of labor problems.”
“As a historian I find this rhetoric all too familiar,” said Molly Nolan, a history professor, of the assurances in lieu of a contract. “Paternalistic corporations come in liberal, conservative and fascist varieties. This is the raison d’etre of company unions, and [NYU’s stance] is the act of a paternalistic corporation.” Nolan added that the university had been vague about how it would handle grievances and the rights and responsibilities of graduate students, and that that inspired cynicism.
Sexton noted that there is an interim grievance procedure  and a compact of rights and responsibilities.  “The heart of the matter is…are they students or are they workers,” he said, to cries of “Both! Both!” from the audience. Later on, after one graduate student invited Sexton to a Sunday evening on his couch amid Chinese food containers and stacks of blue books, Sexton reflected on his own position as a professor in the law school. “After my exam, I have 150 blue books to grade. As a tenured member of the law school, do I consider myself a worker? No.” The crowd erupted in one of the loudest roars of the day.
“When the military invaded Iraq, the only law the kept was that there can’t be unions,” said Ward Regan, a student in the General Studies Program, who, like others berated Sexton for “hiding behind” the National Labor Relations Board decision last year that gave private universities the ability to walk away from unions for graduate students.
More than one student noted that graduate students should not be considered apprentices because they often handle the brunt of the teaching load, without supervision. “We do the same work as professors, but we really have to prepare because we aren’t experts,” said one 56-year-old graduate student. “Right now, my dissertation is slipping because I want my students to be bright."
Though the president’s office told government officials they could not attend the meeting, “we respectfully told them we were coming anyway,” said Christine C. Quinn, a New York City Council member whose district includes Greenwich Village. “It’s critically important to academia generally that NYU continue to negotiate,” Quinn said. “NYU did a bold thing by recognizing the union and…ironing out differences under the umbrella of a union for workers, which these individuals are.”
The lone voice added to Sexton’s in opposition to the union was that of Carol Reiss, a biology professor. She said that “a silent majority” of the biology graduate students “support the university in its proposal.” Union supporters expressed skepticism that any such silent majority existed, and said that, if they do, they should not be silent.
After Sexton and crowd members haggled over the legal existence of “unilateral contracts,” -- Sexton said he considered NYU’s promises, including raises and continued health insurance, to be enforceable oral contracts -- the moderate voice of the day emerged in the form of Christine Scott Hayward, a graduate student in the Institute for Law and Society. “I want a union,” she said, adding that she realized it wasn’t going to happen, and hoped people would instead take Sexton up on his offer to incorporate input in forming new grievance and responsibilities policies. She urged people to read the recommendations  that she helped write, prepared by the Senate Academic Affairs Committee, on how to handle the absence of a union.
While many who criticized the university were strong union supporters, others raised questions about timing, noting that NYU is making this change over the summer, when many students and faculty members aren't around.
Richard Schechner, one of 17 university professors, addressed Sexton personally and focused on a question of timing. “I didn’t think I’d be here, John,” he said. “I think grad students are more apprentices [than workers]. As long as they’re treated well, I’m not in favor of a union. But this is not a decision you should make in the next four days,” he said, referring to Friday, the end of the comment period on the university's plans. “You will personally and professionally regret it for the rest of your life.” He interrupted applause: “I have not changed my mind about the union, but I have changed my mind that the decision should be made in the cloak of July.”