Sunday, January 29, 2006

Derrick Bell in the Nation

The following is a letter to the editor from Derrick Bell to The Nation in response to a supportive article on our strike from January (all errors in transcription are my own):

Scott Sherman's "Bitter Winter at NYU"[Jan. 9/16] is not only poor reporting, it is so one-sided as to be irresponsible. He paints New York University president John Sexton as the bad guy in ad hominem terms. With few exceptions, he quotes only those who support the strike and ignores important aspects of NYU's November28 statement on the strike. Sherman cites union estimates that from 150 to 200 graduate assistants are on strike but fails to mention that that is only about 10 percent of such students.

Sherman ignores the fact that the long missive he describes by quoting a local newspaper's anti-NYU editorial as a "frighteningly blunt ultimatum" actually told striking graduate students that they would retain both their scholarships and their health coverage. It also indicated that those who refused to return to their teaching duties would not receive stipends for the spring semester. The stipends are $18,000 per year. I am not aware of any persons on strike who expect to continue receiving their salaries while they walk the picket lines. The strike is disrupting NYU, and it is doing great harm to students, who are not being taught, or tutored, or counseled by those who are on strike.

Sherman suggests that NYU backed out on the union agreement when the NLRB changed an earlier decision that graduate students were employees and entitled to organize. He ignores easily obtainable information that NYU decision not to agree to a new contract was based on continuing union violations of the provisions of the 2001 collective bargaining agreement providing that "decisions regarding who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching involves academic judgment and shall be made at the sole discretion of the University." UAW brought a series of grievances to arbitration that flew in the face of its commitment. They lost all these challenges, but each diverted time and attention away from other matters and, according to university officials, severely undermined confidence in the union’s noninterference commitment.

Nation readers, including this subscriber, are mainly pro-union and might well side with the graduate student strike after hearing all the facts. The Sherman article denied them these facts, thereby doing a disservice to Nation readers and to this publication.

DERRICK BELL Visiting professor, NYU Law School

Here is the response of the article's author:

Derrick Bell's letter is a pitch-perfect recitation of the official NYU position, and his missive bears a close resemblance to the university’s press releases relating to the GSOC strike. Bell stamps my piece "one-sided." But I carefully reported both sides of this story. I had extensive telephone and e-mail contact with NYU spokesman John Beckman, and I very much wanted to include the voice of President Sexton, but he declined to be interviewed. My article arrived at a conclusion Bell doesn't like; but that does not automatically make it one-sided.

Bell proclaims that "about 10 percent" of NYU's graduate assistants are on strike. But how can he be certain? Alas, the union won’t say how many GAS are striking (although it does affirm that more than 700 GSOC members voted to strike), and NYU itself probably doesn’t have an exact number either, since certain departments where GSOC is strong have refused to pass along that information to the NYU administration.

As I noted in the article, which was hardly "ad hominem," talks between NYU and GSOC/UAW broke down because NYU insisted on an open shop along with a grievance procedure that did not entail binding arbitration. An August 2, 2005, letter from Terrance Nolan, NYU's director of labor relations, to Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, put forth NYU's "final proposal" for a contract:” In the new agreement," Nolan wrote,” there will be no provision for arbitration. All grievances and disputes under the Agreement will be fully and finally decided by the Provost of the University or his/her designee." Bunn replied on August 4: "A key component to every contract," she wrote, "is a fair and neutral dispute resolution procedure... Yet, you are proposing that the University decides in every case whether the University has violated the agreement. Such a notion is simply inconsistent with the concept of having a meaningful contract." The contract expired August 31.

In justifying its hard-line attitude, NYU has recently insisted, as does Bell in his letter, that GSOC/UAW interfered with academic decision making and thereby abused the grievance process "In 2001," Sexton wrote in an October 21letter to parents of NYU students, the university” signed a contract with the UAW.. .because we received written assurances from the UAW that it would not seek to interfere with academic decision-making. Unfortunately, the Union did not keep its promise.”

One should treat this assertion with skepticism. During the four-year contract, there were approximately fifty grievances involving NYU and GSOC/UAW. NYU has released details concerning three of them. Space constraints prevent me from delving into these cases, none of which can be quickly summarized, but I refer interested readers to a November 3 essay by NYU physics professor Alan Social, in which he provides a detailed critique of two grievances(see "Some Thoughts on the Unionization of Graduate Assistants" at Sokal, who argues that neither side was clearly in the right, insists nevertheless that NYU's public characterization of the grievances as purely "academic matters" and "not about economics" is a "gross oversimplification.”

Many observers at NYU view the administration’s” academic interference" arguments empty rhetoric that serves to conceal a deep hostility to unions in general and the UAW in particular. Sokal captures this point well in his essay: "The issue is not whether unionization of grad students is good for the grad students, or good for the university," he writes. "The sole issue is whether the graduate assistants...should be allowed to bargain collectively with the University." He concludes: "The University Administration adamantly opposes such collective representation irrespective of whether 51% or 67% or 99% of the grad students desire it. This has been their consistent position ever since the students' organizing drive began in themid-1990s In the late 1990s they spent several million dollars of the University's money (the precise figure has never been made public) sonant-union lawyers in a failed effort to prevent representation election. They relented on their no-union position only during the brief period (2001-05) when federal law forced them to."

Sherman, the author, has done a great job of dispensing with Bell's argument, so there is no need to rehash that here. But let's talk about Professor Bell for a moment, shall we?

In his book Ethical Ambition, Bell writes about how important it is to stand up for what you beleive, how important it is to be motivated by ethics rather than greed. Bell says: "Our lives gain purpose and worth, though, when we recognize and commit ourselves to action intended to make things better even when we are all but certain that our efforts will fail. For in rising to those challenges, there is no failure. Rather there is the salvation of spirit, of mind, of soul." Really? This is exactly how I feel about my time on the picket line.

But Bell (and I say this despite my own firm committment to animal rights) believes it more important to stand up for the labor rights of chickens than the rights of graduate student employees at his own university. One wonders, as Sherman does, why Bell simply parrots the administration hardline. Is he running for something? Has he finally thrown away his roots and his principals and become a member of the capitalist ruling class?

Despite the fact that Bell has made a "career of resignation" due to his beleif that "ommitment to change must be combined with readiness to confront authority. Not because you will always win, not because you will always be right, but because your faith in what you believe is right must be a living, working faith-a faith that draws you away from comfort and security and toward risk, when necessary, through confrontation," Bell beleives that we should step away from what we beleive.

Derrick Bell has received the Lamplighter Award for Civil Rights for his tremendous activism on behalf of school desegregation, racial integration of faculty, etc. etc. etc. He is quoted by the Black Leadership forum as saying "…politely refusing to just go along with things doesn't destroy you; it can improve your soul and improve your position." Well, gee, Mr. Bell, we are refusing to go along.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorely disappointed in Derrick Bell's letter! Yet, beyond impressed with the Nerds response. Excellent! Brava!

1/29/2006 10:40 PM  
Anonymous annie rudnick said...

thanks for transcribing the letters.

keep on truckin', nerds.

1/29/2006 11:19 PM  
Blogger Eric Prindle said...

That's not what he was saying last spring.

2/08/2006 1:34 AM  

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