Thursday, September 28, 2006

Labor Rights Around the Academy

Rick Berry, a past president of the National Institute of Government Purchasing, claims that there is a new trend to "in-source" Janitorial staff at colleges and universities. Finally, a movement that will increase the labor rights and benefits for some higher education employees! At Florida International University, one institution who recently made such a change, wages and benefits will increase by over $10,000 a year and workers will gain union representation by AFSCME. At Brandeis, pay has increased more than $3 an hour and benefits have also been improved as part of the move to direct hiring, and this group of workers is represented by an SEIU local. And the work continues on college and university campuses across the country. It's inspiring to see the successes that these workers (and the student groups with whom they work in coalition) have had recently.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

More Rip-Offs

For those who don't follow the medical news, the FDA finally approved a vaccine for the prevention of HPV and cervical cancer over the summer. In more bad news for health care at NYU, while the health center does offer the vaccine, it is not covered by health insurance and runs a total of $456 at the Student Health Center. How are students (whether grad employees, undergrads, or professional students) supposed to afford to protect themselves against cancer?

In other news, the Wall Street Journal published an article today on city minimum wage laws. The article is really a debate between two economists, and the one opposed to city minimum wage laws provides a nice glimpse into the type of argument that suggests workers are better off making less money. But what this article really points out, which is not at all covered in the article (seeing as the commentators are economists rather than sociologists) is the fact that the limitations to citywide minimum wage laws occur because they are limited to the borders of cities. If the national minimum wage was increased to $10, WalMart couldn't just pull up and move to the suburbs; it would be forced to pay the wage to stay in business. That's why the labor movement needs to focus on national struggles rather than only local ones.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A New Year, a New Dedication

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During the ten days following Rosh Hashanah (which end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), Jews go to those whom they have wronged in the past year and ask for forgiveness. This time offers the opportunity to reassess one's life and make choices about the person that one wants to be in the next year. Let us, then, take this moment to be honest about our shortcomings, but then move forward and rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of justice for all people, including ourselves.

An anonymous poster wrote a comment this morning in response to the last post which I think is really worth engaging with. This poster highlighted one of the difficulties with organizing academic labor. I am not going to quote the whole comment here, as interested readers can just click on this link, but it ends by saying "We [academics] are accustomed to judging an argument on its evidence rather than its polemics."

I agree wholeheartedly that the answers to empirical questions ought to be determined by evidence (as in most academic disciplines) rather than by rhetoric (as in law and politics). However, union organizing (as other forms of collective behavior) are not really empirical questions. What I mean is that the likely outcome of collective action is determined in large part by how many people are mobilized to participate and how strong their committment to the cause is. If each person needs to be convinced individually that the movement will succeed, we end up in what rational choice theorists call a collective action problem, where all actors assume that their participation will not make a difference.

That may in fact be true. But everyone's participation will make a difference. And you can not necesarily provide evidence of this, because it is something that has not happened yet. Rather, people who join the labor movement do so because they beleive in it: because they are ideologically committed to worker's rights, because they are fed up with the crappy treatment they receive from management, because they and their friends and coworkers are in this together. You can make an empirical argument about the benefits that unions bring. You can make an empirical argument about whether organizing campaigns can succeed without NLRB protections (which they can and do: look at private universities that still have unions after the Yeshiva decision, or read Dan Clawson's The Next Upsurge. But you can't make an empirical argument about the future of this campaign or the future of the labor movement as a whole.

Why? Because we simply don't know what's going to happen yet.

So join us. Don't be a collective action problem. Make the world a better place for workers. And have a sweet new year. L'shana tova.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Strike Vs. Campaign

The Washington Square News published an article today that attempts to be a post-mortem on the strike. But the article makes a big mistake: it confuses the lack of success of last year's strike for the failure of the entire campaign.

This makes no sense. The campaign is an ongoing, in fact growing in strength as more and more people become active and involved. We've gotten continual support from the UAW and we've gotten signatures on our Congressional sign-on letter. We're mobilizing for another year, a year in which we will have greater impacts, create more disruption, and hopefully win our second contract.

Furthermore, as any student of social movements or labor history will know, the fact that one campaign ends without acheiving all its goals does not mean the movement has failed. Rather, we have made a difference in the lives of some graduate employees at NYU (like those in languages who saw their teaching loads cut) and elsewhere (at the many campuses which increased benefits or negotiated better contracts to avoid entering into a quagmire like the one we created). We learned lessons for ourselves to make our campaign stronger this year, and we taught lessons to the UAW, UNITE-HERE, and other unions about the strategies and tactics to use (and not to use) when conducting union campaigns for non-traditional union members. We developed solidarity across campus that keeps us strong today.

And the article leaves a big gap in its journalistic objectivity by not taking on Tony Judt's comments. While it may be true that the UAW has sought out workers beyond its historical automaking contingency because of the shrinkage of the auto industry, that can not explain their continued devotion of resources and energies to our campaign. See, when unions are recognized by the employer, members pay dues to the union, and these dues are automatically deducted from their paychecks (yes, that's right, all us GSOCers contributed a few of our meager dollars to the union with every paycheck). The national UAW got a small percentage of those dollars. But when a union is not recognized by the employer, the national UAW no longer receives that money. In other words, at the present time, the UAW is spending money on our campaign rather than making money from us. I don't care how desperate a national union was; it would not spend money on a fight it didn't beleive in. Judt, I suppose, has not kept up on the futre of the labor movement, a future filled with knowledge and service workers like us.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Chemists Unite!

Every semester here at NYU begins with a significant number of problems with getting our paychecks. These problems include delayed paychecks, entirely missing paychecks, and paychecks for the wrong amount. Because of the history of such problems, our union contract contained a rare clause specifically requiring the University to pay us appropriately and on-time. Despite this fact, we filed greivances every year to get our pay (greivances that lead the administration to claim we filed to many greivances), and NYU lost every one and usually was forced to turn over money quickly.

This year, of course, we have no such recourse. And yet graduate student employees from a wide variety of departments have begun the year without receiving their first paychecks, which were to have been distributed this week or earlier depending on the employees' work schedules.

The most glaring offense has been in the Chemistry department, where workers ordinarily receive their first paycheck in the first week of the year because they have been working in August (unlike those in many other departments). This year, Chemistry GAs did not receive their checks. Instead, they received an email announcing that the pay they were due in this first paycheck, pay they needed for rent, food, medical expenses, and textbooks, would be divded up and provided bit by bit over the rest of their paychecks for the year. In other words, some of the pay due to the chemists in September would not be available until May, giving NYU the opportunity to earn high interest rates on other people's money.

The chemists were angry. And so they marched on the GSAS administration offices and presented a quite reasonable demand: that their pay be restored by the beginning of October, at the latest. Even that date would create considerable hardship for many GAs, including those international students who the university forces to enroll in additional ESL classes without providing tuition remission (while native English speakers who take second languages can do so for free). The chemists GSAS Associate Dean David Slocum that they were not willing to wait and take their chances with the "interm greivance procedure," as other GSOC members have been winding their way through the procedure for 6 months without receiving any results. And we will see what happens next.

Thought NYU housing was expensive before? NYU has abandoned some of the lowest-cost housing (at less than $900 a month) and instead created a new housing option at $2,000 a month. For the 2-bedroom apartments in this building, NYU is now raking in $4,000 a month total. Given what the Washington Square News calls the "notoriously small" spaces in these apartments--rooms are 8x10 or smaller and do not fit beds larger than twin--NYU is clearly engaging in above-market-rate price gouging.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Picket Lines in Michigan

Cary Nelson has an article in on the faculty strike at Eastern Michigan University; it is a worthwhile read.

Meanwhile, an article in the first issue of the academic year from the Pennsylvania Independent highlights the great vulnerability of master's students at NYU without a union contract.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sexton and 9/11

On the first of September, John Sexton sent an email message via NYU's mass mailing system to all members of the NYU community. This message was a welcome message of sorts, a message celebrating some of the incredible research conducted at NYU and some of the expensive initiatives the university has pursued of late. It did not, however, mention a single thing about graduate students or graduate employees. The list of research projects Sexton celebrated are all credited to the efforts of faculty and faculty only, including projects that have clearly involved the work of many graduate employees, advisees, or co-authors, such as those on foreign aid from the economics department or climate change modeling from the Courant Institute. The message also celebrates the new spaces that have recently been created or soon will be for anti-strike departments like economics and philosophy while leaving out new spaces for more involved departments like sociology. And finally, as an institution deeply committed to undermining the rights of working people across the board, Sexton closes the message by wishing the NYU community a happy Labor Day weekend.

But those are just normal acts of mystification on the part of the NYU administration. They are not the things that make this message so troubling. What is troubling is Sexton's decision to insulate himself from criticism by focusing his thoughts on 9/11 instead of on something authentically about NYU. He claims that NYU's response to the 9/11 attacks has been "a commitment to free speech and exchange, through a willingness to be open-minded, and through intellectual rigor." Now, we all know NYU not to be so open-minded. But the message goes further. It claims for NYU a place in the pantheon of 9/11 heroes, a place NYU does not deserve.

In fact, this message does not go far in explaining why Sexton claims this place for NYU. But another message sent on September 5th does. The ostensible purpose of this second message is to invite members of the NYU community to 9/11 memorial ceremony and exhibition, an event I am glad NYU is holding and which I am glad it has seen fit to notify community members about. But the details of the event are buried deep in the message, following Sexton's attempts to claim greatness for NYU in the wake of 9/11. He does point out that students volunteered time, faculty volunteered intellectual responses, and many community members opened their homes to other community members displaced from NYU dorms. But he says more.

Sexton writes, in his 9/11 message, that "the surging sense of community so evident at NYU at that time was one of the proudest moments in my 25 years at the University."

I'm glad Sexton appreciates that which NYU community members did do in those terrible days. But it pained me deeply to see this statement. It pained me for so many reasons, which is perhaps why it is a week later as I write this response. But I will stick with only 2, as this post is long enough already.

First, while the response of some members of the NYU community to the tragedy may have been compassion, action, and maybe in a very few cases even heroism, the response of NYU as an institution was not. Leaving aside some of the work of NYU's medical facilities, social workers, and other professional degree programs, the main response of NYU was to be sure its own were secure, and then to hold a lot of forums to discuss the implications of the attacks. Perhaps exactly what one would expect a university to do. But not anything particularly worth remarking on now, 5 years later, when (depending on your political position) somewhere between 3,000 and 125,000 people are dead who might have been alive but for that moment.

Second, and most galling, is the fact that Sexton apparently views 9/11 as a moment to celebrate with pride, rather than as a tragedy to mourn. Even for those who did heroic things in response to 9/11, what we should feel is a deep regret that such heroism was called for. We should never, as Sexton does, use the anniversary of the attacks to turn our attention away from the pressing problems of today by pretending that they were a "proud moment" to be remembered so gladly and gratefully

So instead of remembering what Sexton does, please take a moment this Monday to remember in whatever way you see fit (whether by observing a moment of silence watching the shinning Towers of Light or by attending a communal memorial like the one at NYU) that people died on that day and that people continue to die every day because of the willingness of so many to look for responses to 9/11 besides that of mourning the people that died and working to keep our world a place that they would have recognized. Sexton, one of my deepest wishes is that you never would have had an occasion to feel that pride.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Big Media

Corporate media and corporate education do so like to scratch each other's backs--as can be seen by New York Times reporter Karen Arenson's article, which could be called a jubulant elegy for the strike. Weapon of Class Instruction posted a takedown of Arenson and the Washington Square News, so no need to rehash here. does slightly better on the complex-o-meter, following up yesterday's article on the end of the strike with a peice today that actually explores some of the hurdles that have made this fight so difficult. The peole who write comments, as always, are quite lacking in their understanding. Nerds particularly appreciate an anonymous poster at 10:05 AM who thinks that the "truth" about whether or not we work is synonymous with the law about whether the NLRB sees us as workers. Anonymous clearly needs to learn a bit more about how law-making works. Other less-pathetic articles include a post on The Chronicle of Higher Education's "News Blog," which at least includes some history, and a Villager article that includes a mention of the health benefit cuts.

In fact, a few other local news outlets, while still lacking the attention to detail of, still do better than the Times (perhaps because they all printed the same article from the Associated Press instead of doing their own reporting): see 1010WINS radio, The Staten Island Advance, WNBC TV, Newsday, and NY1.

So why is the coverage today more intense than at almost any time during our campaign (except for the first day or two of the strike)? Because media corporations themselves are working hard to find ways to rid themselves of unionized workers and thus have quite a lot in common with NYU. For a bit of background on the struggles of media unions, an article from Media Alliance may be of interest.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Health Care in the New Year

Without a contract, NYU can make whatever changes it wishes to our working conditions and our compensation. Of course, it did this when we had a contract as well, but then we filed greivences and could address these issues. So what new problems have we encountered at the start of this academic year? Like for workers all across the country, NYU has reduced health care benefits for graduate employees. Changes include:

  • Perscription co-pays for many drugs have increase to $45 a month (which is in an increase of 30% from last year and 125% from 2 years ago). This means an out-of-pocket cost of $540 a year for those taking just one medicine.
  • Specialty services now require co-pays; they did not previously.
  • Many diagnostic tests, including some important screening tests for sexually transmitted diseases, are no longer fully covered. Copays have increased from nothing to 20% for radiological services like x-rays, mammograms, and MRIs.

In fact, some of these changes took place over the summer and without notice, leaving graduate employees with unexpected medical debt.

Those affiliated with NYU might be aware of a change in on-campus health services reducing costs for some services obtained at the NYU student health center. The propganda sent out by NYU suggested that this change was made to better compensate their beloved graduate students. But don't be fooled. This change helps traditional-aged undergraduates who live on campus and does nothing for many graduate employees. Why? First of all, because it results in increases rather than decreases in costs for those who must seek their treatment off-campus because they live far from NYU's health center. Secondly, it does not improve coverage for many services that are more important for older students, including dependant-care coverage (NYU's on-campus health center is not fully staffed with pediatricians) and more complex specialty care. And finally, it was not in effect over the summer, when many graduate students seek to schedule health care needs so as to avoid interfearing with work responsibilities during the summer.

GSOC invites supporters to join us on Saturday, September 9th in the Annual New York City Labor Day Parade. GSOCers will be marching in the UAW contingent, which will assemble on West 47th Street between 6th and 7th avenues at 2:45 PM.

News Updates, Within and Beyond NYU

The Washington Square News has resumed publishing for fall; today's issue contains coverage both of GSOC actions as fall begins and of the dorm controversy.

This summer has also been a busy time for union efforts across higher education. Eastern Michigan University faculty remain on strike, and the university intends to hire scabs to teach the classes. According to Aft On Campus, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers higher education division, graduate employee unions at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois-Chicago now have contracts, and adjunct faculty at Northern New Mexico Community College have voted to organize a union.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

GSOC, and NYU, in the News

The July-August 2006 issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, has an article by Cary Nelson and Jane Buck about the experience of getting arrested at the April 27th rally. The print version of the magazine also carries a great photo of GSOCers and GSOC placards on Washington Square North.

Meanwhile, The Villager has a new story about the 12th street dorm lawsuit, with lots more detail than prior coverage.

Friday, September 01, 2006

GSOC Orientation

GSOCers staffing tables at the orientation sessions for new TAs signed up dozens of new GSOC members this week. In some disciplines, second-year graduate students who are now first-year employees were excited to be part of the bargaining unit demanding a contract. In other disciplines, new TAs are also new graduate students and were excited to find out about GSOC in the first place.

In news elsewhere on the academic unionism front, faculty at Eastern Michigan University are on strike starting today.