This Wednesday, August 31, at 12 Noon, there will be a demonstration outside of the New York University Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South [corner of West Fourth Street and LaGuardia Place] to support the right of NYU graduate teaching assistants to collective bargaining and unionization. The rally is sponsored by the NYC Central Labor Council and the New York State AFL-CIO, as well as the graduate union at NYU.
In 2000, New York University graduate teaching assistants made history when the National Relations Board compelled the university to recognize their union and begin negotiations. Since 1975, the numbers of tenured faculty at NYU have declined, despite significant increases in the student body. To fill this gap, NYU employed thousands of graduate students as teachers of undergraduate courses, since the minimal pay [without health coverage] it provided to them was a fraction of what a tenure track faculty member would earn. In short, the cheap labor provided by graduate students provided the university with extraordinary profits. By the time graduate students at NYU began to organize, it was estimated that they taught close to one half of all undergraduate courses at NYU. NYU’s story is not unique: across the United States, universities have come to depend, more and more, on cheap graduate student teaching labor. [This has led, among other things, to the decline of universities as serious centers of academic research, as the numbers of tenure track faculty which do such research has declined; the role of corporate sponsorship of research, with all of the academic freedom issues such an arrangement poses, has increased in importance.]
NYU fought the graduate teaching assistants’ union with a scorched earth campaign that would have made the most backward of anti-union corporations proud. It fired the one untenured professor who testified against it at the NLRB, leading to a sanction from the Board. But eventually it was forced to abide by the law, and recognize the union. [Indeed, there is quite a sordid tale to be told in the extent to which the “liberal” university and leading “liberal” and “progressive” scholars in positions of responsibility in such institutions as Yale, Columbia, Penn and the New School have fought graduate teaching assistant unionization, tooth and nail, on their own terrain.]
Then in 2004, in a ruling on the union organizing drive of graduate assistants at Brown University, the NLRB reversed its own precedent established in the NYU case. In a straight party line 3 to 2 vote, the three Bush administration appointees on the Board upheld the university’s contention that graduate teaching assistants have a “primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Notwithstanding the extent to which the contemporary university is entirely dependent upon graduate student teaching, they are not ‘labor’ in the eyes of the Bush appointees. Perhaps they are only three-fifths of an employee. The dissenting members of the Board called this finding “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality,” and concluded that “[t]he result of the Board’s ruling is harsh. Not only can universities avoid dealing with graduate student unions, they are also free to retaliate against graduate students who act together to address their working conditions.”
For those who still question the negative impact of having the Bush administration in power in Washington, a short examination of the egregious decisions handed down by the NLRB under its control, of which this is only one example, will leave little room for continued doubt.
Given an open invitation from the Bush NLRB, the NYU administration has moved against the graduate assistant teaching union. Your support for the right of unionization at NYU is important.