On November 28, three weeks after graduate teaching assistants at New York University walked out on strike, president John Sexton dispatched a long missive to the strikers. Buried in paragraph seventeen was an explosive piece of information: For those students who return to work by December 5, Sexton proclaimed, "there will be no consequences." And the fate of those who choose to stay on the picket line? Those "who do not resume their duties...will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach." (Most graduate assistants rely on stipends to cover their living expenses.)
Sexton's threat was greeted with much shock and outrage on the Greenwich Village campus. An editorial in the Washington Square News, a daily student newspaper, called it a "frighteningly blunt ultimatum." "The punishment that finally came down was far more extreme than I personally expected," said NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, who has supported the strikers. "It's totally unprecedented to say, Because you've been on strike for four weeks, you will therefore have the next semester — or two semesters — of your salary docked."
The roots of the NYU conflict, which now seems stalemated, go back to 2000, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled, in a historic decision, that graduate assistants at private universities were "employees" and thus entitled to union representation [see Andrew Ross, "NYU's Poison Ivy Itch," October 3, 2005].
Subsequently, NYU became the first private university in the nation to negotiate a contract with a graduate student union — in this case, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), affiliated with the United Auto Workers. That contract lifted stipends from around $10,000 to $18,000 a year, provided full health insurance coverage and allowed for paid sick leave and holidays. Last year, in a 3-to-2 ruling involving Brown University, the NLRB, newly stacked with Bush appointees, reversed its earlier position on graduate student unionization — which seems to have emboldened NYU to adopt a rigid stance toward GSOC, since it is no longer legally compelled to negotiate with the union.
Talks between NYU and the GSOC collapsed in August after the university gave GSOC forty-eight hours to accept a new contract, one that — in the words of an open letter signed by 209 NYU faculty members — "contradicted the very definition of what it means to be represented by a union." (Although other sources confirm this account, NYU spokesman John Beckman denies that there was an unwavering forty-eight-hour deadline.)
New York University, which insisted on an open shop and a grievance procedure that did not entail binding arbitration, decided, in Sexton's words, to "move ahead without the union." GSOC members voted to strike — not to achieve higher wages (NYU's current pay scale is roughly equal to that of the old union contract) but to affirm their right to unionize. "To walk away from the union contract," says Matthew Osypowski, a graduate student in creative writing who remains on strike, "would be a betrayal of those who fought for our first contract and those who will stand to inherit the benefits of the second."
It was undoubtedly Sexton's hope that his ultimatum would break the back of the union. His threat did, indeed, force an undetermined number of international students back to work, but not before dozens of them had unleashed their fury in a December 7 letter to the president: "We, as international students," they wrote, "feel especially vulnerable to your antagonizing, intimidating and outrageous threats...we condemn these threats as signaling a sharp decline in NYU's intellectual and ethical position in the academic and labor community." (Some GSOCers who returned to work have indicated that they will not serve as replacement labor for comrades who remain on the picket line during the spring semester.)