24 July 2005

NYU - Where the U Stands for Union Busting (CS)

There are apparantly two popular images of New York University. One of these is the often cited (especially by the University itself) accomplishment of becoming the #1 Dream School in the country. Whether it's the allure of the big city itself, popularized in movies and television or the allure of a fine academic institution remains to be seen (I shit you not when I say that I've heard talk that the show Felicity caused a huge jump in enrollment at NYU.... so y'know, that sort of thing....). Meanwhile, for those that have been through NYU or have at least had close contact with it, the image tends to be one of a painfully beurocratic and sometimes sickeningly money grubbing metropolitan juggernaut that has a terrible record of devouring the city piece by piece.
I'm not one to jump on either side. I don't intend to idolize it nor bash it. Despite the constant talk of a terrible tuition, I feel that I at least got what I paid for and I think I got one damn fine education out of the history department and even the majority of the much maligned Morse Academic Plan.

It is however, hard for me to stick up for the University decision not to negotiate with the graduate student union. These kids are in a tough position. They make hardly any money (certainly not enough to get by on in the city) and no benefits for taking on many of the same responsibilities many professors have while of course at the same time trying to juggle their graduate study course load. Meanwhile, as they try to make bread money and gain an advanced education at the same time, their critics and detractors will call them spoiled brats for complaining from a position of privelege.

Their critics will probably also attack the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) the United Auto Workers (UAW) and unions in general. Unions often make a convenient scapegoat, whether it's for corruption, causing outsourcing, inconvenient work stoppages or who knows what. Truth is, however, that unions help a lot more than just their own rank and file. As David Sirota points out, people should care about the labor movement because when unions can get themselves a better wage and benefits, the ripple effects are often felt throughout the company involved and often throughout the industry, benefitting all workers. Sirota cites Costco and it indeed serves as a great example. Costco lets its workers unionize and although it is only a minority who join the union, as they get benefits so do the rest of Costco's employees. Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the low turnover in employees and general employee morale and loyalty, the entire company prospers, despite the pissing and moaning of greedy stock holders more worried about the numbers at the end of the week than long term growth.

This sort of ripple effect seems absolutely true in the case of graduate students as well. At the beginning of the month, The Journal of Higher Education published an article that showed that when NYU recognized the Teaching Assistant union (the first private college to do so) "other colleges had to start offering stipend and benefit packages that compared favorably with NYU's." The spokesperson for Columbia's grad student union noted that their wages increased "by an average of over 42 percent during the life of the NYU contract." And of course, by being the only private college to recognize a TA union, NYU had certain bragging rights as a progressive, modern university that cared to some extent about its student employees (something that could certainly lend to student and general morale).

Despite the (newly Bush appointed) National Labor Relations Board ruling that the University was under no obligation to negotiate with the union, NYU had a chance to prove itself to be as progressive as it claims, moving along the lines of committment to doing something more and helping others that President Sexton harped upon in his graduation speeches this past May (I know, I was there). Perhaps feeling a bit of the old hubris from the "#1 Dream School" designation, NYU has so far decided instead to not negotiate. Its town hall meeting was more than suspciously scheduled for the summer, when support for the union would be harder to come by (most students being away until the fall) and despite a good showing of support (from students and politicians), the meeting seemed to come across as a bit of a farce. Most came away with the feeling that this was a Public Relations exercise and that the University had already made up its mind.

So, what now? Hopefully these college educated kids will recall the Greek tragedies they no doubt had to read and remember that with hubris comes a downfall. A strike from the GSOC/UAW would see large university wide support (from other students, professors, and especially adjuncts), causing a somewhat paralyzing situation for the university. It would probably only take a little bit of coordination to get other student unions on board as well in support of one form or another, especially from Columbia and Yale whose unions have shown a certain amount of admirable resolve in the face of daunting odds. Talk about ripple effects.

It's been a long fight thus far and it's still a long fight ahead now for the GSOC/UAW (as well as student unions everywhere). But that's always the case for labor. As the saying goes, "When the going gets tough....." and it might well be time for these kids to prove that they aren't a bunch of spoiled brats, that they will not be ignored, and that labor is not just going away.


Blogger Brendan said...

As a former student at New York University (and recipient of academic expulsion, thankyouverymuch) I must say that this situation provides the almost universally ponytailed-liberal professors a wonderful opportunity to put their money whither their mouths are. At NYU, not only our President, but Bush voters and Republicans in general are a sort of common joke, as if only slope-headed heathens could identify with conservative or neoconservative politics.

Now we have the University administration benefiting from the same type of pitiless business ethic, and it'll be interesting to see which way the teachers slide. Do they stoically risk their tenure and pension to stand in solidarity with the grad students, or ignore the issue, betting -- in all likelihood correctly -- that the fight has little juice?

One addendum: As a 17-year-old who wished to walk the hallowed halls of New York University, I was indeed advised by the Dean of Students at my high school of a logjam of applications created by, get this, "The Felicity Effect." Sounds like a great movie.

7/24/2005 2:30 AM  
Blogger ORF said...

Brendan, you were expelled??? For what?

Also, were you guys there when they were busy spraypainting USOC and stuff all over campus? That whole fight was a big deal, and I'm very sorry to hear that NYU is pantsing out. Then again, NYU is notorious for not wanting to deal with unions period. Remember when they were building the Kimmel Center? Looks like a job for the big inflatable rat!!!!!

8/01/2005 3:59 PM  

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