Sunday, January 29, 2006

Great Supportive Letters in the Nation

Here are the great letters written in support of GSOC in this week's Nation, in response to a January article featuring our strike (any errors in transcription are my own). To read the ONE negative letter (from NYU's own Derrick Bell) with author's response and Nerds' commentary, see the previous post.

As the voice of the higher education profession and leading advocate for the highest academic standards, the American Association of University Professors deplores the actions of the NYU administration in severing bargaining relations with its graduate student union and threatening draconian punishments for those graduate employees who remain on strike.

The administration claims that its decision was based in part on the premise that allowing teaching assistants to have bargaining rights jeopardizes the traditional roles of professor and student, because the TAs will be placed in an adversarial relationship with their faculty mentors. However, a clear majority of NYU faculty supports the TAs. The NYU chapter of AAUP has organized an initiative called Faculty Democracy to oppose the administration’s action. More than 200 faculty members are active participants in that effort and have declared their support for the graduate student employees' decision to strike. It is both disingenuous and risible to assert that the mentoring relationship is harmed by good faith negotiations about salaries, benefits and access to fair grievance procedures.

It would appear that the decision to severities with the union was motivated by a cynical desire to exploit the graduate teaching assistants. GAs lecture, grade papers and monitor examinations-in other words, they perform the teaching duties of a professor. They may join AAUP with full voting rights and the right to hold office at every level of the organization. The AAUP's "Statement on Graduate Students” asserts, in part, that "graduate student assistants, like other campus employees, should have the right to organize to bargain collectively” and "must not suffer retaliation from professors or administrators because of their activity relating to collective bargaining.” We condemn the retaliatory actions taken by the NYU administration against the strikers, which have had a chilling effect on the academic climate. We will continue to support the GAS in their efforts.

JANE BUCK President, American Association of University Professors
(see letters of support from AAUP, including one to Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer)

According to the recently formed adjunct union, some 75 percent of classes at NYU are taught by adjuncts and graduate students, to reduce personnel costs. During the contract with the union, the number of fully funded graduate assistant positions fell from 1,300 to around 1,000, according to GSOC UAW Local 2110. When the administration complains that Local 2110 interfered with "academic decisions about the administration's employing more adjuncts. In one case graduate students from Columbia University, rather than NYU, were hired. What NYU calls the "enterprise university” actually means outsourcing education tithe lowest bidder.

NICHOLAS MIRZOEFF Professor, New York University New York City (Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions)

We appreciate Scott Sherman's reporting on the GA strike. "Bitter Winter at NYU indeed: Graduate assistants walk the frigid picket lines to insist on their democratic right to union representation while the administration, led by a president appointed without customary search procedures, issues unprecedented threats of reprisal against some of the university's most promising young scholars. The faculty, meanwhile, awakened to its own marginalization in the decision-making processes, attempts to organize itself around core principles of democratic governance. Our students, in their fight to retain the union they won in 2000 through legitimate democratic elections, have exposed this administration's flagrant disregard for academic freedom and shared governance of the university.

A dispassionate examination of the record would indicate that it is not the union, in its four years of existence, that has encroached on academic freedom. It is the president, the provost and the University Leadership Team--whose union busting actions have included electronic eavesdropping on courses and unilaterally stripping departments of effective control over course staffing and even over grading procedures-who have been the real enemies of academic freedom. The university as a community that attempts to put into practice the lofty democratic ideals taught in its classrooms has-been sadly transformed, not by the union or the graduate assistants but by the administration, which from the very beginning eschewed democratic procedures and proceeded down the road of unilateralism. The fractured situation at NYU is actually worse than Sherman imagines. The administration should negotiate with the union immediately.

REBECCA KARL On behalf of 26 NYU faculty New York City (East Asian Studies department)

It isn't surprising that NYU's administration wants to make decisions without having to bargain with a union. What is surprising is the extent to which NYU administrators, many of whom are scholars and professed liberals, are willing to compromise their intellectual integrating support of their goal? In 2000 the NLRB issued a unanimous decision granting graduate assistants at private universities, including NYU, the right to unionize. This bipartisan decision harmonized federal law with that of most states, which allow GAs at public universities to form unions The NLRB found that because GAs provide services for NYU for which they are compensated, they are employees.

In 2004 a newly constituted NLRB, dominated by Republicans who have built their careers attacking unions, overturned that decision in a case involving GAS at Brown University. The Brown decision, poorly reasoned and intellectually dishonest, is part of the radical right's antilabor campaign, which has eviscerated labor protections and reduced the number of workers shielded by the few safeguards that remain.

This Republican position, adopted by NYU, is based on several faulty premises, one of which is that teaching performed by GAs isn't real work; it's part of their academic program. Even NYU doesn't believe this. Tellingly, striking GAS haven't been threatened with expulsion from their academic programs for refusing to teach; they have been told that they won't be paid. At most universities GAs provide 30 to 50 percent of all instruction. At NYU they teach all freshman English composition courses, the overwhelming majority of language courses, other core undergraduate requirements and discussion and laboratory sections associated with large lecture classes. Courses are assigned based on NYU's instructional needs, not the pedagogical needs of the TAs. NYU receives full tuition for all GA taught courses. It may be true, as NYU and the NLRB maintain, that teaching experience prepares graduate students for (the ever-shrinking number of) jobs in academia. But many jobs, in many fields, impart skills that allow for future advancement. In other fields this doesn't eliminate labor rights.

Another faulty premise is that GAs shouldn't be allowed to unionize because they’re primarily students. It's absurd to argue that because a worker is also other things her rights as a worker are dispensable. Federal labor law doesn’t exclude from its protections part-time workers who fulfill other roles.

Finally, NYU claims that bargaining threatens academic freedom. But academic workers organizing to defend their interests, and to compel administrators to consider their needs, is a bulwark of academic freedom. The real threat is from administrators intent on concentrating all decision-making in their own hands.

DANIEL J. RATNER, CARL J. LEVINE Attorneys for the GAs' union, GSOC/UAW Local 2110

NYU has turned the clock back on democracy and workers' rights. That's quite a serious transgression, especially coming from a university that sees itself as "sanctuary.”

President John Sexton may be popular with large-donor fundraisers and his Ivy League colleagues who want to stop workers from having voice on the job and a union contract. If he were smart, however, he'd listen more carefully to faculty members and others who have made it clear that his tactics are disgraceful and damaging to the reputation of the university.

Instead, Sexton is following the corporate management playbook to the letter-by threatening students with an ultimatum that they end their strike or be fired. That's all too familiar to workers across America forced to pay a price every day for rights that are now better protected in Taiwan, South Africa and Brazil.

On December 10, International Human Rights Day, US workers and allies rallied in 100 cities, and were joined by activists from China to Europe, to make the case that bargaining rights and democracy are inextricably linked. In the weeks ahead Sexton will realize that the movement for true democracy is alive and well at NYU. Graduate student workers across the country must see NYU's action as both the disgrace it is and the wake-up call that student workers everywhere need in order to restore their workplace rights. The rest of us must stand up and support them.

The Communications Workers of America fully supports the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and the UAW at NYU. We stand with graduate student workers everywhere who want to exercise their basic democratic rights.

LARRY COHEN President, Communications Workers of America

Our first contract raised our stipends by an average of 40 percent and provided employer paid healthcare and training for NYU graduate assistants. Members of GSOC/UAW Local 2110 as well as NYU undergraduates, faculty and even administrators have attested that our contract has made us better at our jobs and has made NYU a better university. The reaction of John Sexton and the NYU administration tour strike has only underscored why we need second contract.

MICHAEL PALM Chair, GSOC/UAW Local2110 Ph.D. candidate, NYU (go Mike!)

As one of the nation's leading experts in organizing under the NLRB, 1 have analyzed tens of thousands of NLRB election campaigns. NYU's campaign against its graduate students stands out to me because it represents a nonprofit institution that seems to have forgotten that it is in the business of higher education. It is making major employment decisions that will have a lasting impact on the quality of education of its undergraduate student body based solely on its own antiunion animus and the antiunion animus of the consortium of other universities that have joined NYU in the fight against the right of graduate students to engage in collective bargaining.

This means that instead of choosing TAs based on their expertise, teaching ability or experience, the sole criterion determining whether a graduate student will be teaching at NYU this spring is, did he/she participate in the strike? Suddenly the business of the university has become strikebreaking and union busting, not education.

But that is the least of the tragedy. A lifetime ago, it seems, there was a notion of Ph.D. students as apprentices, learning at the knee of the greatest scholars, who worked side by side with them, teaching them their trade, mentoring them. Graduate students were assigned to faculty in their field and were trained, supervised, evaluated and mentored, and they advanced with a guarantee of a professorship upon completion of their degree.

But for at least a quarter-century, graduate students have increasingly been doing more of the work while fewer tenure-track lines are being added. Graduate TAs are assigned classes based on department needs, given minimal training and supervision, rarely mentored and rarely teach the subject they actually plan tot each. And unfortunately, few are guaranteed job upon completion of their degree. Instead fan educational opportunity, their teaching is the primary means through which they support themselves while going to graduate school. It’s a job. One with long hours, low pay and limited benefits, but a job just the same-one that fits any definition of employee that the framers of the National Labor Relations Act had in mind.

Yes, Bush's hand-picked NLRB overturned the ruling granting graduate students at NYU the right to organize, but the tides will shift again, and eventually no one will be able to deny the truth. Graduate students are workers; they are doing the work of universities when they are acting as teaching assistants. Universities are not teaching GAs how to be professors; GAs are making the machinery of the university work, and they are critical to the ability of universities to remain financially solvent. If graduate assistants did not exist, universities would have to hire adjunct faculty to take their place-or go back to hiring more tenure-track faculty. They can be replaced only with other employees because they are employees. It is time for NYU to start making decisions based on what is best for its students

KATE BRONFENBRENNER Director of Labor Education Research Cornell University


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