Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Town Hall Meeting Wednesday: If We're a Virus, Get Ready for Drug Resistance

Yesterday, Nerds attended the GAC town hall meeting, and will now file a report on the proceedings.

The event began with brief introductions by Christine Scott-Hayward (Student Senator etc. from the Institute for Law and Society), Kimberly Moran (Student Council President, Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Science), Rodney Washington (Wagner Student and head of the Graduate Student Affairs Committee), David McGlaughlin (Provost and math professor), Bob Berne (NYU Senior Vice President for Health and signatory on the original GSOC union contract), and our very own Mike Palm. After this, the remainder of the evening was given over to a comment, question, and answer period.

Nerds are not very good notetakers, so what follows will not be a complete summary of the comments, questions, and answers presented but rather a selective presentation of noteworthy, inspiring, pathetic, and humorous points. But Nerds can tell you that of all the comments from the floor during the evening, the only one who did not express at a minimum support for the concept of a graduate student employee union of some kind was Catherine Stimpson—and only maybe one or two others were not entirely resolute in their support of GSOC as the venue for representing our interests at NYU. Additionally, of the 100 people in attendance, very few have not been seen on our picket line at some time or another. Basically, those who care about graduate student life and working conditions at NYU are those who support GSOC.

The administration representatives began by talking about how graduate students and faculty are the “essence” of the University. This proved quite interesting for a GUS (graduate/undergraduate solidarity) member, who wondered how the GAC would provide value in the classroom for her $40,000 a year in payments to NYU (as the union has). The administration did not answer her, which of course shows just how little they actually care about the classroom experience of undergraduates. A further way in which the administration demonstrated this lack of care for undergraduate experience is through their insistence that teaching is not scholarly work (see an article on why this statement is absurd and antithetical to our working lives.

McLaughlin (and also Berne, but McLaughlin did most of the talking) kept making the same speech over and over again about how “the decision has already been made” not to negotiate with GSOC (like management ever “decides” to negotiate with a union without being forced to?). He focused on how some of us “strongly disagree” with his “belief” that the union is not the way to go. Instead, he said, we should focus on the GAC proposal as a “third way.” Of course, if GSOC is the first way and GAC is the third, what is the second? (Nerds believe that GAC is both the second way and the third way, as it was eplicitly called for by Sexton.) No one ever makes that clear. But as a comment from the floor pointed out, management always calls for a “third way” or “middle way” during union struggles. And as Kitty Krupat, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and GSOC signatory on the first union contract, pointed out—the students sitting up on that panel were not even aware of the way in which they are being used by the administration for its own ends (despite what seem like their honest best intentions).

On the “we’ve heard this enough already” front, McLaughlin continued to emphasize his position that we are not workers (because as Paul Boghossain, Professor of Philosophy, puts it, we receive “a certain amount of coaching”). A member of the audience spoke about how he received job training as an engineer, but still counted as an employee. And yet, the administration representatives had to engage in linguistic acrobatics to avoid using the word “worker” or “employee”—talking about our responsibilities, for instance.

Other comments from the floor pressed the administration to explain why it is working so hard to internally divide the graduate student body. For instance, one commenter pointed out that the GAC proposal would separate out the Courant Institute from the rest of GSOC in terms of student representation. Hugo Pezzini from the Comparative Literature department, in an uncommonly eloquent speech, asked why the university, traditionally a place of idealistic and utopian thinking, would work so hard to undermine the institution of the union, one of the few honorable institutions left in our society. Others pointed out that GSOC was the best and only way of creating community for graduate students, and thus attacking it was attacking the very basis of community (rather than building it, as panel members are pretending to do).

Other portions of the discussion focused on just what power the GAC has, particularly in terms of the “litmus test” of rescinding the blacklist. As even the students on the panel admitted, all the GAC could really do is send a letter to and have a meeting with the administration. Similarly, the appeal process would require each of us to file our own grievances and fight them separately, with no precedent-setting ability. This would be, as Matthew Osypowski of the creative writing program pointed out, impossibly expensive in both time and money for graduate students. Holly Lewis, also of the creative writing program, also did a great job of explaining why and how the sanctions were unfair, and by the end of the evening, panel member Kim Moran seemed to understand where we were coming from. She did even admit that GAC could not replace GSOC and would be powerless to solve our problems.

But perhaps the most absurd comment of the evening comes from Sexton himself, relayed in his absence by an audience member. Sexton has said that the union is a virus which it is his personal mission to eradicate. Perhaps he ought to be careful. Sometimes, when you try to hard to eradicate a virus, it becomes resistant to your medicine.

And for a more journalistic take, see the Washington Square News article.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, y'all are certainly convincing the law students that you're a virus worthy of being eradicated. More than a fair share of us, especially those PILC-inclined ones, are fed up with your idiotic antics. I find it hard to believe that we're supposed to empathize with you while because of your protesting many of our interviews for summer jobs (and not firm ones, but rather the altruistic and public interest based ones) are being seriously interfered with.

Understand, none of us care. So protest all you want over by the undergrad buildings but for the love of Pete, leave us alone.

2/10/2006 9:33 AM  
Blogger specter of marx said...

To anonymous law student, I'm sorry you felt/feel inconvenienced by the strike. The point, however, isn't to protest your interviews per se, or purposely screw you guys over; it's to ask other groups who share our politics on labor, and are scheduled to conduct interviews on campus, to show their solidarity by relocating. Many who did were large non-profits with significant clout. When they appear on campus, they lend their credibility to NYU, and tacitly back the Administration's stance on GA unionization. We asked them not to cross our picket line, and many willingly agreed in a show of political support for our cause. Surely it's a hassle to trek 10+ blocks out of your way for an interview. For that, I offer you an apology, as well as a great deal of appreciation and admiration.

2/10/2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger kstrna said...

It begs the question then why GSOC spends time finding space off campus for professors to teach classes. If they support your politics they shouldn't teach at all. By teaching class for NYU they are crossing the picket line. By teaching these professors are keeping the university going (and thereby supporting the administration's policy). Why a union would make it easy for people to cross a picket line is beyond me. It also dilutes your message and only makes it easier for students to fall in anonymous' camp. As long as students are progressing in large numbers, NYU keeps working. Its product still gets produced (students branded with the NYU name).

2/10/2006 3:38 PM  
Blogger specter of marx said...

kstrna, there are 2 types of picket lines: physical and symbolic. Because our working conditions aren't as centralized as, say, a factory, we are forced to strike and picket in ways that other types of laborers may not, either now or historically. Our goal, unlike more "traditional" strikes, is not simply to "shut it down." Thus, we rely more heavily on symbolic (i.e., discursive) tactics to disrupt the normal workings of the University. This explains the importance of getting faculty and third-party speakers to move events off campus.

2/10/2006 6:47 PM  
Blogger kstrna said...

Save you have signs saying shut it down. NYU as a neoliberal institution really doesn't care if its students are forced to go off campus to go to class as long as they can turn out students with the NYU brand which they are doing. Even more students are applying to the university. Off campus classes are annoying only to those who in theory should be on your side (faculty & students). There are only one type of picket line. There is a physical representation of it but to continue to do work for the university is crossing it. The goal is to change the academy but your previous contract kept things limited to the employment issues. If the course was taken to be more radical than a traditional Samuel Gompers inspired labor union and be a union of students & teachers out to improve education at NYU, I would imagine your support would be greater. Initially it would have required more work but you wouldn't be in the position that you are in now, which by all accounts appears to be pretty weak.

2/11/2006 9:13 AM  
Blogger zach said...

kstrna, If GSOC had publicly stated that its goal was broader than negotiating over the conditions of its work, getting that forst contract might not have been possible, regardless of what our actual goals are. Like you, i think unions should always have "broader agendas" (to paraphrase one of Richard Levin's attempts to slur Yale Workers in the fall of 2002, since i know you're a Yale person.)

I take issue with two things you are saying. First, i want to point out that in fact the moving of classes off campus has been incredibly disruptive. The administration has threatened faculty against it and have monitored class websites in part to determine who is and who is not meeting their classes on campus. It's a strong demonstration of neutrality/support on the part of faculty and one whay to make clear to the community that something is rotten on Washington Square South.

Second, i don't think we're in a particularly "weak" place right now. They have thrown everything they have at us, and we're still here. Many people have gone back to work, but we have continued to demonstrate our collective stregnth as a union and continued to push forard and place increasing pressure on the University Leadership Team towards a just settlement.

2/11/2006 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

kstrna, you are completely right!! I have been thinking this for months...gsoc and the university administration need each other so badly. gsoc is the furthest from radical, they are inventing themselves as such ( and painfully visibly so) in order to legitimize their courses of study, they want to "make history"...they need to stop this foolishness at once.

2/15/2006 2:15 AM  
Blogger specter of marx said...

Actually, I agree with the last anon comment in so far as GSOC is not, in actuality, promoting a "radical" cause. Fighting to keep protections we've had for the past 4 years is hardly radical! History was made when we won the first contract; we carry on in that spirit. Someone posted a comment on the WSN site calling our fight a "conservative revolution" (a term which could also apply to the American Revolution). I think that's a pretty accurate assessment.

2/15/2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger kstrna said...

Which is part of the problem. Why support an organization that is actively engaged in codifying grad students as employees? In theory what "work" we do do should be about training/learning. That is not reality mind you but shouldn't that be the push? To truly change universities to be responsive to those they purport to teach. Doesn't that require an organization that is more radical than a union which negotiates employment grounds? Aren't you in fact in a manner of speaking legitimizing the casualization in academia?

2/16/2006 7:52 AM  
Blogger specter of marx said...

I agree with you in spririt, kstrna, that GSOC has some flaws in need of remedy. However, I wouldn't exactly put failure to tackle the dual global hegemonic forces of capitalism and neoliberalism at the top of its list of weaknesses!

GSOC's *immediate* goal is to improve and safeguard the working conditions of NYU's graduate employees. While GSOC is apart of a larger labor movement, at its heart, it is a grassroots organization with a local scope.

While your critique of unions (or the labor movement more generally) as not "revolutionary" enough may have some validity, it's also important to consider the value, efficiency, and efficacy of different strategies for social action: working from within the system vs. working from without; working toward small, incremental differences that produce gradual change over time vs. striving for radical upheaval. You seem to favor the latter in both cases, but many a social theorist (Foucault and Bourdieu included) might argue for the former. In other words, the "push" that you speak of *must* be grounded in our current organization of "reality" in order to succeed.

2/16/2006 7:28 PM  
Blogger kstrna said...

The fact is though the current model was dependent on the good graces of whoever was in the White House and the administration of NYU to get your contract. Once that was removed you were left in your current situation. Not exactly the most empowering movement as you are fighting to hold onto what gains you had, which is exactly what Gompers model of labor unions has left labor in general. The take it slow approach works when there is a threat of something more radical. The gains labor unions got were because of the threat of socialists. That threat is gone and labor unions are feeling it. The push for radical upheaval is what achieves small changes.

There isn't that push anymore. Nader in 2000 got 2.7% of the vote. Debs in his worst year got 2.78%. The rightward swing of the us started with the push provided by Strom Thurmond's run for president under the States' Rights banner in '64 and followed by Wallace in '68 receiving about 13.6% of the vote. The Republicans began the Southern Strategy which continues to this day.

GSOC is a typical trade union, which achieved success more because of what they were not than what there were. In this day an age without the threat of other, they have become other more so than ever before. YOu can choose to either be meek & beg, annoying law students like anonymous above or be strong.

2/17/2006 1:27 PM  

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