Conflicting Claims on NYU Strike

In showdown on TA rights, university says most grad students are on the job; union says its members are holding out.
December 12, 2005

New York University told striking graduate assistants that they would lose their stipends for the spring if they did not return to class last Wednesday. With the day of reckoning having passed, some graduate assistants have ended their strike, while others maintain that they will stop at nothing short of union recognition.

NYU officials say that 75 percent of graduate assistants have returned to the classroom. Administrators surveyed classrooms on Wednesday to come up with that figure. That number represents an analysis of Wednesday courses in which graduate assistants are primary instructors -- 165 of NYU’s 2,700 classes.

But members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers that had represented about 1,000 NYU graduate assistants, pointed out that the number is not representative of the impact of the remaining picketers.

Michael Palm, head of GSOC, said that many more graduate students who hold recitation sections or help with grading are still on strike. “A lot of faculty members have canceled [recitation] sections for the semester to make it impossible for the administration to know who’s on strike,” he said. Some departments have also taken neutrality pledges that say they will not help administrators determine who is on strike. Kristin Campbell, an undergraduate who supports the strike, said that none of her three graduate assistants has returned to class, but that she knows some others have.

For the first few weeks of the strike, which began November 9, NYU did not talk about cutting pay to graduate assistants. On November 28, however, the university let graduate assistants know that, if they wanted their stipends for the spring, they had better return to the classroom by December 5. In response to a request by the Graduate Affairs Committee of the student government, NYU pushed the deadline back to December 7. NYU has offered loans for graduate students who wish to continue their studies, but lose their stipend.

A letter from President John Sexton announcing the initial date informed picketers that “however strongly felt a graduate assistant’s act of conscience may be, it should not be pursued any longer at the expense of undergraduates.”

Some of the 1,000 graduate assistants that GSOC represented never supported the union, and remained in class throughout the strike. Others who did go on strike, faced with losing their stipend and teaching assignments, have felt compelled to return to class.

Some international students, afraid that losing their stipends could affect their visa status, have begrudgingly returned to class. One hundred international graduate students signed an open letter to Sexton saying that, though some of them never went on strike, and some are returning from the strike, they have all done so under fear of being deported. “NYU has stated that our legal status is not in danger, yet the administration is fully cognizant of the fact that our student visas are contingent on our continued status as full-time students and our ability to cover our living expenses, which in turn depends on our stipends and salaries,” the letter reads. It adds that loans granted in U.S. dollars would be “extremely difficult to repay … when we return to our home countries.”

Some departments, like history and American studies, have been very supportive of the strike, and striking students in those departments may be able to stay below the administration’s radar. In other departments, like math, students say that some faculty members have told them directly that they should not be on strike, or that it would be a bad career decision.

At the beginning of the strike, about 20 students in the math department signed a letter to faculty members in the department asking them to sign a neutrality pledge. They did not sign, and 6 of the 20 students went on strike. After the first week, only two remained, and then one a week later. Now, no math graduate assistants remain on the picket line.

Frederic Laliberte, a foreign math grad student, wrote in an e-mail that “it is easy to intimidate a student when you're his or her advisor. Actually merely being strongly anti-union and insisting on it can be VERY intimidating.”

Several groups have made proposals to the administration for resolutions to the strike. Among them: the Graduate Affairs Committee proposed forming a universitywide body of elected graduate students to negotiate with the administration. Faculty members from the sociology department also proposed a new elected body, grievance hearings when needed, and a six-year “horizon” announcing future stipends. A majority of the the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have called on the striking students to suspend the strike and enter discussions, and on the administration to withdraw any stipend penalties, calling them “disproportionate … for participation in a labor dispute.” And, most recently, the Spanish and Portuguese department proposed creating a body of graduate students, faculty members and administrators that could implement new policies.

Josh Taylor, a spokesman for NYU, said that the administration “is interested in the proposals,” and that “if in the future both parties can endorse one of these solutions,” any penalties might be retroactively lifted.

Palm said that “none of these proposals calls on the administration to negotiate with the union. Our members are not turning a labor union into a student government group.”

As for professors who, in support of the strike, have moved their courses off campus, many remain in bars, black box theaters, and other buildings. Sukhdev Sandhu, an English professor, moved his Intro to Asian American Literature into Greenwich Village’s KGB Bar when the strike began. He’s still there.

“The students, some of whom have been inconvenienced, remain enthusiastic and supportive of the strike,” he wrote in an e-mail. And of all the battles that have erupted over the labor issue at NYU, perhaps some wounds are being soothed. Sandhu added that “[My students] observed, and I agree, that's it's striking how so many businesses and individuals in the downtown area have been so willing to rally behind GSOC. NYU is often thought to be at war with NYC; not this time though.”


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