Ph.D. Octopus

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Big News for NYU Grad Students, GSOC, TA Unions

with 3 comments

By Wiz

Yesterday was a big day—one might even say historic—for academic laborers. GSOC, the union for NYU’s grad students, once again was certified as representing a majority of graduate students, and began the process of becoming a recognized union. NYU grad students are the only grad employees at private universities ever to have organized a union. Unfortunately, we lost it when George Bush’s National Labor Relation Board stripped us of legal protection, allowing NYU’s administration to break the union during a 2005-6 strike. Now, after a frustrating wait for Obama to fill the NLRB with his own appointees, we finally have a national board sympathetic to grad employees, and can proceed with unionization.

The Crowd Gathers outside Bobst, in festive mood

Yesterday, we presented the NYU administration with independent verification from the American Arbitration Association that we were a majority and asked them to recognize us. Your intrepid reporter was on the scene for some pictures and some thoughts.

On board to help us out was Jerry Nadler—Congressman from Manhattan—and Christine Quinn—the Speaker of the City Council. The politicians, a group of religious leaders, and some grad students went up to the 12th floor of Bobst (Sexton’s lair) and asked NYU to recognize our majority, while an impressive crowd of grad students chanted, waved signs, and carried balloons outside. Although we were asking NYU to voluntarily recognize us, GSOC made it clear that, if NYU does not, they will “petition the newly constituted National Labor Relations Board for legal recognition.” This petition would create the legal precedent that would determine whether TAs at private universities have the right to organize into unions.

My, and only my, thoughts follow.

Its important to put this all in context. Us worker bees at NYU have a set of particular grievances—low pay, an undemocratic administration, the reduction in resources for students in their 6th plus years, etc… But ultimately the fight at NYU cannot be taken out of the context of a broader struggle to create democratic universities.

Christine Quinn addresses the group

The past thirty years have seen the growth and then consolidation of a corporate model for the university. Many more eloquent voices than I have written about this at length. But in a nutshell the defining features are: (1) Increased inequality of both power and resources within universities, as star professors and elite administrators are both paid more and have a far greater say in the decision making process than the mass of the university; (2) Growing casualization of the workforce, as universities rely heavily on poorly paid adjuncts, TAs, and post-docs, for academic labor, while hiring fewer and fewer tenure-track professors; (3) From 1 and 2 flow logically the bottom heavy job-market, where universities encourage the growth of TA and adjunct positions to perform the labor previously performed by tenured faculty, and where the willingness of academics at the start of their career to take those undesirable jobs erodes the necessity for universities to ever hire more tenure faculty; (4) Increased connections between universities and corporations, with corporations endowing chairs, influencing teaching curriculum, and outsourcing their research to (tax-exempt) universities, (5) Rising tuition for undergrads, as well as the celebration of a consumer mentality among the undergrads, leaving undergrads burdened with a crushing debt upon graduation and reducing their bargaining leverage as workers; (6) Increased emphasis on business, economics, and the hard sciences, to the detriment of the humanities; (7) Reduced funding for public universities, which must make up the difference either through private partnerships, donations, or, in some lucky cases, their sports programs; (8) Finally, the financialization of the academy, as endowments have been invested in complex hedge-fund like arraignments, by trustees often culled from the world of high finance.

Your humble author signing a novelty over-sized union card

In this atmosphere, the unionization of grad students is a hopeful step towards reclaiming the university. Raising the wages of TAs is both just, and in the long run, will discourage schools from an over-reliance on TA labor. Increasing the power of workers and students helps to re-distribute power away from unelected board of directors and administrators and towards the people who actually perform the day-to-day labor in the university. Finally, the process of unionization may help awaken academics, and put the problem of academic labor more clearly on the minds of more people.

There is one common reply, I often hear from skeptical grad students, and especially professors, that is worth replying to now. This is something along the lines of: “unionization basically accepts this corporatization of the academy. It institutionalizes the wage relationship between grad students and the university, when since age-immemorial, universities have been autonomous oases outside the societies they are in.” Some forms of this argument stress that we have a special calling as educators (as our former Dean Catherine Stimpson used to love to tell us) and embracing unionism is degrading to that sacred mission. Another is that unionism would destroy the paternalistic relationships between grad student and adviser, replacing it with a formalized adversarial relationship. Unionism seems to elevate our role as workers, these critics contend, over our roles as thinkers, mentors, and educators.

To these skeptics, we reply: what you fear has already happened. Defenders of the university trumpet this vision of the university all the louder exactly as the university moves farther and farther away from any such reality. They have turned us into disposable wage workers and we must respond as such.

A Rabbi and a Priest walk into John Sexton's Office...

Those who would sit around pining nostalgically for days when our profession was “honored and looked up to with reverent awe,” are like the Tories of the 1830s, romanticizing the comfortable paternalism of the past while obscuring the realities of the present and delaying action. We fight the actual existing university, not one that only exists in ideology and myth.

On this blog, weiner has mentioned the need for a greater emphasis on teaching during grad education, a position I agree with. But, I would argue, renewed dedication to education is complementary, not contradictory to grad student unionization. In almost every sector of the economy union members are more productive workers. There is no contradiction between caring a lot about the job you do, and expecting to be treated fairly while doing it. In fact, my experience both with grad students and on other union campaigns, has been that those most committed to a dignified sense of their work, are often the most interested in unionization, as they are acutely sensitive to the degradation of their workplace. Moreover, the economy of the corporate university—which privileges “star” professors who rarely teach, but boost the school’s reputation and US News Ranking, while expecting poorly paid and anonymous adjuncts to take up the slack—has been the prime mover in the degradation of academic education.

Another important context, of course, is that this reflects the wide impact of Barack Obama’s election. Without the nominations of Craig Becker and Wilma Liebman it isn’t clear this could happen. If the Age of Reagan really is ending, it will be because of thousands of small struggles like this, that remake American institutions in more democratic and egalitarian forms. Politicians will do a small part of that, by creating the right legal framework, but the rest of us will do the real work.

And as I finish writing this: we’re in the New York Times!


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 27, 2010 at 13:27

Posted in Academia, labor, unions

3 Responses

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  1. Peter, this is a great write up. One important point, though: GSOC/UAW Local 2110 is the union for ALL graduate employees and represents ALL the work that we do, which is more than just teaching. NYU grad employees also perform research, administrative and other services for the university. I think recognizing ALL of the work that we do as contributing to the university’s functioning only makes your arguments stronger!


    April 27, 2010 at 13:43

  2. Point taken… I’m in such a humanities bubble. Though I think most of what I said counts for RAs and GAs just as well. And the corporatization of the academy is, if anything, even worse, among the hard sciences.


    April 27, 2010 at 14:51

  3. […] fellow workers. Or at least I think I do. Our very own Wiz is extremely active in GSOC, and has written about it here at PhD Octopus. His leadership there inspires me, as do the actions of workers across the […]

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