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November 09, 2005

Nerds strike: NYU grad students fight for union, contract

NYU graduate students hit the picket lines today in Washington Square Park. The strikers are demanding that the university recognize their union and negotiate a fair contract. Union leaders say that graduate students are prepared to remain off the job until their demands are met.

In 2000, NYU's teaching and research assistants became part of Local 2110 of the United Automobile Workers. When the grad students' contract expired at the end of August 2004, the University refused to continue to recognize their union because the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that students at private universities did not have the same rights to organize as their counterparts in public university systems.

I arrived on the picket line around noon. At least 500 grad students and supporters were assembled in front of the Bobst Library. The strikers marched around Washington Square, NYU's de facto quad.

This was a grad student strike, so there were plenty of unconventional plackards on display: "Nerds Pissed," "We Are Not Docile Bodies," "NYU Assistante En Greve," and so on. Some English PhD students were swapping signs so that everyone got a chance to carry their favorite piece of text.

Students and workers from Rutgers, Yale, and CUNY joined the NYU students on the picket line.

Many faculty members also attended. Some, like Prof. John Waters, wore arm bands in solidarity with their striking grad students.

A large and vocal contingent of undergraduates undergraduates showed up to support their TAs. A third-year undergrad, "Canek," pulled off the most dramatic gesture of the day when he flew a banner reading "Contract Now" from the balcony a building adjoining the library. Minutes later, campus security guards and police made him take it down. It looked like they weren't going to let him go.

There was a slightly tense moment when a group of strikers rushed towards the glass lobby where Canek was arguing with the police, chanting "Shame on you!" Then Canek emerged with his banner and everyone calmed down and resumed marching.

Canek later told me that the security guards wanted to arrest him, but the NYPD officers couldn't be bothered.

"The police officer literally said "What did I get myself into? I just came in to use the bathroom," Canek said.

The first day of the NYU grad student strike was a success. It was upbeat, well-attended, and well-covered by the mainstream media.

I'll be checking in with the strikers as their job action progresses.

Here are some photographs of the NYU grad student strike. (New link to Typepad album)


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Cool. What's with the great big inflatable rat?

1) the big inflatable rat shows up all over town, wherever unions are picketing. I pass them on the narrow streets in the financial district all the time, which is lots of fun. That's actually a new (or maybe old) version; the eyes are different than they were on the model I keep seeing. I guess the idea is that if you refuse to negotiate with unions, you're a rat.

2) as an nyu alum, and a guy who had to hear (then Dean, now) President Sexton say all sorts of self-congratulatory things about what a progressive guy he was and how NYU's history as the school for working people gave him a special responsibility to and understanding of the labor movement, I must say I've been watching this whole mess brew for years with increasing amusement. To me, though, it underlines the fundamental Marxist point that it's all about economic position; the people that matter at NYU are liberals and progressives by any standards that matter, but the nature of labor relations and the market forces them to take an illiberal, regressive position. (incidentally, roughly the same issue came up at NYU a few years back when JAG interviews on campus briefly flared up as big issues; there were all sorts of protests, which the administration basically had to disperse while trying to sound sympathetic. Similarly, come to think of it, a couple of years ago they had to gut a house E.A. Poe once lived in, in the face of heavy community resistance; nobody venerates the architecture and history of the village more than NYU (which is, after all, the largest landlord in the village, I'm told), but when push comes to shove...)

PS: NYU now owns the former home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.--those pictures were taken about a block and a half SW of it, as a matter of fact. You can't shake a cat in that neighborhood without running into some strange historical juxtaposition.

I thought NYU is flushed with cash from all those donations during the boom. Plus they have money to convert the entire lower manhattan into dorm complex.


as I read in junk mail at least twice a week, NYU's foundation is relatively puny (relative to the Ivies, at least, who we like to believe we're otherwise comparable to). And besides, NYU is in a desperate struggle with Forest City Ratner to buy the remaining 12 private properties south of 14th street, so NYU can convert 'em to dorms before FCR turns 'em into luxury condos.

as I read in junk mail at least twice a week, NYU's foundation is relatively puny (relative to the Ivies, at least, who we like to believe we're otherwise comparable to). And besides, NYU is in a desperate struggle with Forest City Ratner to buy the remaining 12 private properties south of 14th street, so NYU can convert 'em to dorms before FCR turns 'em into luxury condos.

On an entirely unrelated note, is anyone else starting to get a little freaked out by the woman in the blindfold and matching gown?

I don't understand all this fandangled union business. How did teaching assistants end up as auto workers?

As the auto industry went into decline, adjuncts filled the void.

no good union songs have been written since the '20s, so they sought out some musicology types. The rest is history.

This question is about what administrations CAN do, not what they SHOULD do (so please don't yell at me).

What prevents the universities from strike-busting effectively? If the NLRB doesn't apply, why can't they just state that any grad student who is out on strike is violating the terms of their assistantship, and thus owes tuition for the semester (and will not be permitted to re-enroll or receive a transcript until it is paid).

(Also posted on Lawyers, Guns, and Money)

To a university, firing all striking grad students would be destroying valuable inventory.

Such a move would cripple departments for years. A research university's influence depends to a large extent on the quality of the PhDs it produces and those candidates' placement record in the job market. It would take years for programs to recover from a massive purge of striking grad students.

For example, it would be suicidal for NYU to fire 1000 grad students in order to make a point about the right to unionize. After all, the university has already lived with the union for four years, without obviously dire consequences. Sure, the administration would prefer not to recognize the union, but I doubt it's prepared to take the kind of drastic steps Sam was wondering about.

Firing those TA? who is going to grade students paper and tutor? And who is going to do become the cheap lab slave labor?

Can't exactly outsource advance research yet you know.

Squashed Lemon: Kentucky's community colleges have a pilot program to outsource grading.

The real danger, it seems to me, is that the administration start selectively strike-busting. It's true that firing 1000 teachers and T.A.s is unfeasible; but firing "agitators", "ringleaders", "troublemakers" has been done elsewhere to scare people away from the union.

"Nerds Strike" is a great photo. thanks

CUNY was there! We just had low-budge signs...

I thought I saw you guys! I'll fix the post.

I'm a math prof at NYU who does not support the strike. In fact, most of the science faculty seem not to support it. Grad students in the sciences have not benefitted from the union. Still, I admire the math students who are picketing: they have big hearts standing up for something that probably will be bad for them in the long run.

Like many science faculty, I am most annoyed with my colleagues from the liberal arts side of NYU. These departments exploited and mistreated grad students terribly over the years.

I fear the striking grad students will suffer most from the strike. While tenured faculty will keep their jobs, many students will abandon their career paths. NYU can limp through this year then bring in a new crop of grad students next fall.

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