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Dec 2, 2005 8:12 pm

New York News

Today, NYU's striking graduate students are holding a rally to denounce President Sexton's announcement that strikers who don't return to the classroom by Dec. 5th won't receive spring-term teaching assignments. One striker complained,"President [John] Sexton is refusing to acknowledge the importance of self-determination and democracy, and wants to turn this university into a corporation instead." The strike has been going on for three weeks, and NYU has continued to pay all strikers, and will continue to do so for the rest of the semester. I'm not sure I know of many corporations that operate in this fashion.

I think this entire matter could be best handled by a kind of market pressure. I doubt that the union is correct in its argument that to attract first-rate grad students, NYU needs to go beyond the $50,000 annually that it currently provides in tuition aid, health care coverage, and stipends isn't enough, and must also provide grad students with a unionized atmosphere that dictates hiring patterns, negotiates contracts, intervenes in the relationship between grad students and advisors, and pushes other aspects of its goal to bring"self-determination and democracy" to campus. But if the union is correct, good students will cease attending NYU as a result of Sexton's position, and will go to unionized graduate programs instead. In that case, Sexton would have to choose between a non-unionized environment or a second-tier program.

Joining the NYU rally is the indefatigable faculty union at CUNY, the PSC--despite PSC leaders' statements that the union is engaged in"round-the-clock" negotiations to get a contract. (Right now, the PSC is the last major municipal union in the city without a contract, though this is what happens when you spend two years refusing to back down from 100+"non-negotiable" contract demands.) The PSC also has taken time away from its"round-the-clock" negotiations (which, apparently, aren't so"round-the-clock" after all) to testify and then protest against a new plan by the CUNY Chancellor for a"Compact" in higher education, to leverage increased funds for CUNY from the city and the state with promises on CUNY's behalf for increased fundraising, more efficient management, and regular 2-3% tuition increases. (I supported the Compact in an op-ed published Wednesday.) Sounds uncontroversial: but PSC head Barbara Bowen denounced the plan on the grounds that it violates the union's desire to restore CUNY's policy of"radical openness"--open admissions--despite the disastrous failure of this initiative in the 1970s.

So, the PSC is demanding huge pay raises for faculty at the same time it is vitriolically opposing the Chancellor's plans to increase the funds available to CUNY--funds that would pay for, among other things, raises for faculty. That's the kind of logic that would appeal to those advocating"self-determination and democracy" for the NYU strikers.

Update: The WSJ's Taste page comments on the strike, noting,"The real issue is whether the union mentality and the blunt weapon of collective bargaining are any way to advance academic excellence. The last four weeks at NYU demonstrate that they are not."

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Barry DeCicco - 12/7/2005

I'd also add (echoing Brad DeLong a year or so back) that organizing TA's/RA's isn't easy. The population is highly transitory and segmented into groups and departments. The university puts out the line that what they are doing is education, not work. Many of them still hold the hope that this is an actual apprenticeship, rather than a system in which the vast majority will leave academia (in the words of one critic, gaining their Ph.D. will mean the end of their teaching careers, not the beginning). The university has every tool available to the private sector, plus additional tools such as private police, and the ability to withold recommendations.

By the time that a grad student union can actually strike, things are bad.

Barry DeCicco - 12/7/2005

Ralph, perhaps the administration doesn't care about the students, if they can't come to an agreement. Although putting all of the blame on strikers is a venerable American tradition.

Lisa Casanova: "How is tuition "arbitrary"? The $2500 that my department says my tuition remission is worth is $2500 that I don't have to earn or borrow every semester. It seems perfectly fair to count it as part of graduate student compensation. "

Luisa, it's based on the market value. Ph.D. tuition is almost 100% an artificial internal transfer price. Universities fill the vast majority of their Ph.D. classes through these mechanisms. In several years of grad school, I knew precisely one person who paid for one year of Ph.D. classes out of his own pocket.

If universities actually believed their own rhetoric, and hired adjuncts to do their teaching, because they're cheaper than Ph.D. students, then only a few Ph.D. programs would not be empty.

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 12/3/2005

I myself did not support the most recent unionization effort here because it would have, I thought, interfered with my advisor's ability to provide for me during the summers. (All summer research jobs would have become competitive, in other words--a bad situation.)

I certainly don't think that unions can/should interfere in matters of curriculum, so if the NYU union thinks it can do that, that's a problem. I meant only to draw attention to the fact that many grad students at several universities feel like they have legitimate grievances as regards compensation and benefits. Some administrations seem reluctant to address this state of affairs.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/3/2005

I don't see them as lazy--I see them as irresponsible. I am very, very wary of any academic strike, because of the harms that strikes cause to our students. TA's that walk out in the middle of the term and leave students hanging suggests priorities other than wanting to teach and show up for work.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/3/2005

In this specific instance, though, the NYU union refused a specific offer from the administration that it would continue to negotiate with the union provided that the union confine itself to salary and benefits issues--which, I think, calls into serious question the union's agenda.

In general, though, this issue strikes me as one where there's a trade-off. It's likely that unionized programs might yield higher salaries than non-unionized ones at a comparable institution. Whether this would lead to more pay isn't entirely clear, since union dues will come off the top. Moreover, grad student unions come with a variety of regulations that lots of students don't particularly like--one reason, I suspect, why Harvard grad students have consistently rejected unionization. (There was a movement in the early 1990s when I was there as well, which fortunately was rejected.)

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 12/3/2005

I don't know much about the NYU situation. Every few years a unionization effort starts up at Harvard and the administration usually responds with concessions. But I'm sympathetic to the NYU students--not necessarily because I think a union will solve their problems, but because I think grad students at large, urban universities, as a group, get squeezed while providing an essential service to the university.

Here, we get five years of tuition paid, and our health insurance and health services fee covered. I managed to wangle a sixth year because I have an outside fellowship this year. But even after those benefits, I find that 2/3 of my income goes towards paying rent in my university-owned housing. I find the rest of my income goes towards food, some books on sale, and medical care NOT COVERED by our expensive but substandard plan.

Next year, if I do not find a job, I'll remain a student if only to maintain access to that health insurance (which I won't get at all of I adjunct here or anywhere else as a newly minted PhD). But that means, on a meager TF salary, I'll have to pay housing, tuition, and health insurance. It can't be done, so I'll take out a loan. When I go to sign the paperwork for that loan, I'll be asked to sign a piece of paper allowing the graduate school to convert my TFing to work-study. The federal government will then pay about 2/3 of my salary.

So the conclusion I've come to is that universities squeeze their graduate students in order to force them to take out loans, whereupon the university can pawn off the cost of having the graduate student teach on the government. Grad students provide an essential service to large universities: we do the bulk of the grading, we perform the bulk of one-on-one instruction, we write most of the recommendation letters for students, and we advise most of the senior theses. Do we really deserve to be walked over by the administration? I don't think so. I'm not sure the NYU students are doing the "right" thing, but I can understand that they feel pushed to the edge.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/2/2005

That was my paraphrase of this statement: "TA positions will be filled by people who actually want to teach--and will show up for work."

The latter part of the phrase "will show up for work" would have been legitimate enough if it had stood alone. "Who actually want to teach" is something else again. It's a statement that the graduate students do not want to participate in the profession they are training for.

In combination: KC claimed that the students were uninterested in their profession and would not show up for work but (in this context) who want more money anyway.

My paraphrase="lazy bums." Am I wrong?

Ralph E. Luker - 12/2/2005

Er, Oscar, I'm looking for the words "lazy bums" in what K. C. said. Can you point out to me where they are?

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/2/2005

."I can't see how NYU can be attacked for not making sure that its TA positions will be filled by people who actually want to teach--and will show up for work."

Labelling strikers as lazy bums who don't want to work has has a long and ignoble history. the fact that you vehemently disagree with their action is no excuse.

They may be wrong, but you have absolutely no right to call them lazy bums unless you provide evidence that they do not want to work.

Greg James Robinson - 12/2/2005

The reason that $50,000 is an arbitrary and misleading figure is that it represents a benefit against tuition of $30,000 or more. These are rates that only the very richest students would have to pay out of pocket--the very students who do not need to work at TAS jobs in order to support themselves. However, the specifics of benefits are secondary, if not irrelevant. As in the case of strikes among sports teams, it is hard to sympathize with strikers who make unimaginable large sums of money, yet I tend to support the millionaires against the billionaire owners. More troubling is that is seems President Sexton's goal is to do away with graduate student unions entirely, on the basis of the rather questionable ruling by George W. Bush's NLRB. President Sexton has set the deadline and then stated that if TA's settle, but then go back out on strike, and thereby miss classes without an excuse, they will lose their funding for the following two semesters. As many faculty have pointed out, this represents a blacklist of a kind against further unionization.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I was a graduate student at NYU in the early 1990s, and I worked as both a TA and a graduate assistant. (The difference was that I had a set number of hours for the latter--20 per week--and there was no tuition benefit) My pay, as I recall, was about $10,000, which was more than I made as an adjunct teaching two courses a term at another institution in New York. By sharing apartments, economizing, working summers and doing paid outside research, I managed to get by, but it was not until I quit school to take on a full-time job that I managed to get clear of some of my debt.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/2/2005

Agree completely with Lisa. When we enter grad school, we're all aware of the situation--no one forced the strikers to attend NYU.

That said, I think the NYU strikers have every right, if they so choose, not to teach. Since they have found the situation as NYU TA's to be financially intolerable, they should be free to find other work to help pay for the education. But I can't see how NYU can be attacked for not making sure that its TA positions will be filled by people who actually want to teach--and will show up for work. Nor can I see how NYU is at fault for not providing stipends to people who don't show up for work.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/2/2005

NYU offered to continue negotiating with the union, provided that the union confine discussions to salary and other compensation matters. The union said no. I agree with Sexton--having the UAW involved in the academic decisionmaking process will not make NYU better.

As your comment notes, moreover, the situation at unionized schools is no better and might very well be worse than at NYU.

Jonathan Rees - 12/2/2005


You write:

[I]f the union is correct, good students will cease attending NYU as a result of Sexton's position, and will go to unionized graduate programs instead.

But there are costs to entry and exiting jobs in the graduate student labor market. Heck, you have to find a unionized university graduate history program that will let you in. Although those are all, by definition, state schools, some of them aren't half bad. Yet also by definition, state schools don't have as many TAships to give out because they're poorer and transfers from NYU would be at the back of the line.

The grad students striking at NYU aren't doing it to destroy the school. They want to make it better. If they're all so rich already, why do you think they'd risk their careers by taking this drastic step?

As any practicing academic should know, we don't do this for the money.

Brian Ulrich - 12/2/2005

There are grad students making $16,000 a year? Dude, that's more than I get with a union.

Lisa Casanova - 12/2/2005

How is tuition "arbitrary"? The $2500 that my department says my tuition remission is worth is $2500 that I don't have to earn or borrow every semester. It seems perfectly fair to count it as part of graduate student compensation. That said, I have a hard time sympathizing with these students when I and my fellow grad students work long hours for stipends of $16,000 a year, and I've taught 25-student science labs twice a week to undergrads (along with making up exams and doing all the grading and prep work) for $5000 a semester on top of my other job and course work. Graduate school is a choice among alternatives. It's not something you do because you're poor and desperate and out of choices. It's something you do because you're educated and have options. Yes, getting a PhD is long and difficult, and sometimes it sucks so much you want to quit. But nobody owes it to you to make it easier! To complain that we're not getting paid enough for the choice we freely made to get more education makes us sound like spoiled children, not scholars. There are lots of people who would love the chance to go to grad school and have the opportunities a PhD can create. Why do the ones who have that chance do nothing but complain about how unfair life is?

Louis N Proyect - 12/2/2005

The e-mail sent by NYU President John Sexton about the possibility of a strike should be a familiar sight to everyone by now. In the e-mail, Sexton’s rhetoric is particularly barefaced, but a few of his points require addressing.

The $50,000 figure thrown out in Sexton’s e-mail as the total amount of compensation received by grad students is grossly misleading. He was able to arrive at such a high figure by including the tuition remission, which is a standard part of grad student packages at many schools. This tuition is a completely arbitrary figure, though; it’s money going from one pocket of the university to another.

The average stipend for graduate students is between $17,000 and $20,000. Before the first contract won by GSOC, average stipends were around $10,000 a year, and in some cases half that. The increase was a monumental victory, but I don’t need to tell you that it’s impossible to live in New York on $17,000 a year. Just to cover basic living expenses, many TAs are forced to take part-time jobs, in addition to the work they do teaching classes and as full-time students.