Strike Two

Some NYU graduate students return to the picket lines for a second semester -- but others return to teaching.
January 18, 2006

New York University students returned to class Tuesday, which means striking graduate assistants returned to the picket lines.

Neither the picketers nor the NYU administration know for sure how many graduate assistants will remain on strike this semester. Still, the physical presence of striking members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers that had represented about 1,000 NYU graduate assistants, will be more diffuse.

GSOC leaders said that the administration’s declaration that graduate students who remained on strike would lose their stipends scared many students back to class. In the math department, for example, the half-dozen students who did decide to strike all returned last semester, some citing pressure from advisors. Plus, “it’s pretty cold,” said Michael Palm, head of GSOC. Picket lines will be smaller but numerous this semester, focused on trustee and administrative meetings.

Graduate assistants are primary instructors in 165 of NYU’s 2,700 classes, and many more hold recitation sections and help with grading. GSOC members struck after NYU stopped negotiating with the union this summer.

Some graduate students spent winter break looking for jobs should their stipends disappear. So far, however, the administration has not made good on its statement in late November that graduate students who stayed on strike through December would lose their stipends. “By the end of the fall semester, grades were coming in at the usual rate,” said John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, who characterized the disturbance as minor. “Therefore, it has not yet been necessary to impose consequences.” Beckman added that, in the new semester, graduate assistants will “either fulfill” their teaching obligations, “or will have to confront the consequences we outlined for this semester,” which include the loss of stipend and teaching assignments, possibly beyond just the spring semester.

Palm said that “it’s clear their hope was to put out the threats, scare people back to work, and not have to implement them.” Palm said that striking students are “prepared to deal with the consequences if they do enact the threats.” The union would pay striking students $200 a week, about half the normal average stipend. Also, some GSOC members spent winter break raising money that can be dispensed if stipends stop coming. Palm said that many of the donations have come from faculty members around the country, as well as from other unionized students.

Some NYU faculty members are planning, like last semester, to hold their courses off campus so as not to cross the picket line. John D. Guillory, chair of the English department, said that “a fair number of students who were on strike are back,” and added that class size limits have been raised in some cases to make sure students can take the courses they signed up for, even if the graduate assistant that would have taught is on strike.

NYU had been the only private institution to recognize a graduate student union, and they eyes of academics around the country have been on the current struggle. One thing that some observers have wondered is whether the attention has affected graduate applications. Most of the department chairs contacted said that it is too early to tell whether applications are up or down, as they will not look at the applications for at least a week. But those who had a sense of preliminary numbers said that this year looks like any other.

Michael Gomez, chair of the history department, said it seems to be a normal year, as did Jalal Shatah, chair of the math department. Marisa Carrasco, chair of the psychology department, said that applications are up so far from last year.

Still there are definitely individuals who turned away from NYU because of the strike. Robb Willer,  a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, withdrew his job applications to NYU’s sociology and psychology departments in response to the labor strife.

Union leaders hope to keep the pressure on by having big names appeal to the administration. Christine C. Quinn, a New York City councilwoman whose district includes NYU, was recently elected speaker of the City Council. Quinn emphatically supported GSOC at a meeting with John Sexton, the president of NYU, this summer. “It’s critically important to academia generally that NYU continue to negotiate,” Quinn said at the meeting. “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.”

Said Beckman, “our hope and expectation is that we have a smooth semester.” 


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