Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 22, 2009

The struggle at NYU continues

Filed under: Education,workers — louisproyect @ 12:55 pm

This is a follow-up to my write-up on the crisis in higher education panel discussion at the Left Forum 2009 that appears immediately below.

Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2009
Bush Gone, NYU Scrambles to Escape Anticipated NLRB Ruling
By Marc Bosquet

During a break from writing a column or blogging, you imagine that you’re going to return with a magisterial survey of all the events that transpired while you were away. Instead, of course, you are just plunged right back into the fray. Thirty interviews recorded but not edited; a dozen interviews promised but not done. Not to mention book reviews, self-indulgent columns about your offspring, and the never-ending fountain of administrator outrages demanding immediate attention: cancelled sabbaticals, slashed pay for faculty serving contingently, prison labor on campus, and pleas for federal money to erect more monuments to administrator vanity. I’ll get to all of these promises and topics in time. (Thanks to the intrepid John Protevi for the prison labor tip: more on that ASAP.)

While I was on the road, I heard from NYU students and faculty about the administration’s plan to restructure graduate education in response to the appointments of Liebman and Solis, which most observers feel will trigger a reversal of the absurd Brown decision, to which Liebman provided a scathing dissent. (That was the ruling that the Bush mob unapologetically used to overturn the landmark, unanimous, and bipartisan GSOC-UAW ruling that forced NYU to the table.)

Now NYU claims that all of their thuggery and intimidation – you know, like firing Joel Westheimer – was all a misunderstanding. They want grad students to join a union – just not the union they chose and built for themselves, GSOC-UAW. Instead, the administration wants to force them into the union of faculty serving contingently, ACT-UAW which, ironically, formed as a result of GSOC.

In future, NYU graduate-school officials have recently informed the community, grad students will be admitted either with funding or without, but teaching will not be part of their funding package. All teaching will be officially optional – though still conventionally expected in most fields. Interestingly, the new teaching-optional mentality contradicts the central argument made by NYU’s attorneys before the NLRB, that grad students couldn’t simultaneously be Yankees fans workers, because teaching was a necessary part of their education.

What will this plan mean in practice? Some students will teach less than now, especially if they are well off or in fields where grant money is available. And some will teach about the same but at an awkward time in the arc of their studies, in the sixth year and beyond.

It also seems likely that some students will teach more than the current standard, and quite a bit more than the upper tiers of future students. Some units will apparently be admitting more unfunded students who will have to “choose” to teach their way through as contingent labor. It seems pretty clear that this strategy is aimed toward undermining GSOC-UAW’s support with at least some entering students, and at the NLRB, though it’s far from certain that the “what we said last year was full of crap” strategy is going to win with Liebman at the helm.

The administration probably also hopes for a divide-and-conquer dividend with ACT-UAW. If they succeed in forcing doctoral students into the contingent faculty union, management may accomplish some dilution of purpose (since under the new plan some doctoral students will only enter that union for a couple of years, rather than the eight or so they’d belong to GSOC).

I spoke to GSOC’s Rana Jaleel and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein when I was in New York earlier this month and, later in my travels, with some other faculty and students who wish to remain uncredited. And I discussed the situation further with Andrew Ross over e-mail in the last 24 hours. Ross is the author of the just-released Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, about which I will have a lot of nice things to say, when I can find time to say them.

My exchange with Ross follows.

Q. What do you know about the plans to restructure graduate education at NYU?

The plan was first proposed during the GSOC strike by a group of faculty – referred to as the Third Way at the time – who were trying to broker a clean exit strategy for the NYU administration from any obligation to deal with the union. It was not taken up then but it has emerged as the horse to back for NYU and other private universities as they contemplate another NLRB reversal. Basically, the plan is to offer full five-year fellowships with no built-in teaching obligations. TAships will therefore disappear, and graduate students will teach – there will be an expectation that they will do so – as adjuncts and will be classified as such.

Q. What sort of inequities could a plan like this produce?

It re-introduces a culture of informality into the workplace, where intimidation will undoubtedly flourish. Department chairs will need TA’s no matter what, and will lean on students to teach even though they may not want to. The plan is a recipe for intimidation in fact. It explicitly reverses the benign impact of the original GSOC contract which brought some formal rules about work into the classroom.

In addition, there will be a three-tier student body, those with family support will not teach much at all, and the gap between them and the more disadvantaged tier will be more visible. The plan also calls for the admission of unfunded students – as a third tier that will presumably be available to teach very cheaply at the drop of a hat.

International students will have an especially tough time, after the five year period, because of visa restrictions on their freedom to work.

Domestic students who, in their five years of funding, have not been bullied into teaching through the “moral authority” of their mentors, will then be eminently available in subsequent years to teach at adjunct rates that are far below those currently afforded to TA’s.

Q. Are there any other drawbacks? Will programs and admissions shrink?

In a time of fiscal retrenchment, full-fellowship packages will be more expensive, so we expect that the total number will be cut. Also, the administration is presenting the plan as a way to make NYU more competitive with its would-be peers. As more and more elite private colleges adopt this kind of graduate funding package (and if they want to avoid dealing with GA unions, they almost certainly will) then the gap between the privates and the publics will further widen.

Q. Who will be doing the work currently done by graduate student teachers?

The same graduate students for the most part. This will not be lost on the NLRB. Simply because you change a job title doesn’t mean the work is any different, and if it’s the same folks teaching then the NLRB case is not much altered. What will change more is the role of chairs and DGS’s, they will become direct managers of teaching labor in all sorts of ways, reinforcing the Yeshiva claim that faculty are managerial positions. I’m actually concerned about how faculty in these administrative positions may be legally exposed to NLRB inquiries into unfair labor practices.

Q. What do you think motivates the administration?

It’s no secret that this is an effort to eliminate the union. This is openly discussed in deans’ meetings with chairs that I have attended. More hypocritical is the administration’s effort to portray it as a “victory for labor,” since the students in question will be “allowed” to join the adjunct union. No one in GSOC was consulted, and students continue to want their own union, as far as we can tell. More telling, no NYU administrator has ever contacted the adjunct union about this plan. No one has asked union officers how they feel about having student members who will clearly have preferential access to certain kinds of teaching. It remains legally questionable whether students will be able to join that union under these circumstances.

Q. Rana Jaleel of GSOC-UAW calls this an attempt by the administration to make an “end run” around the union. Do you agree? How do you think the union might react?

Rana is stating a fact, in my view, not an opinion. How the union reacts is not my call, of course, but I do think the administration is making many mistakes, and that this bungled effort to preempt the NLRB may well backfire on them.

Q. How would you contextualize this plan in connection with Take Back NYU and the occupations at the New School?

It’s too easy to see this as part of a continuum with the “anomalous wave” of worldwide student protest. I think it has more to do with NYU trying to close the books on the legacy of the 2005 strike.

Q. This isn’t a strategy that most other administrations can afford to adopt. Where do you think this will leave the movement to unionize grad employees at private schools?

It will be a great blow to the academic labor movement if GSOC gets snuffed out. The current generation of GSOC organizers is strong and resourceful. Even if they are absorbed into the adjunct union, that’s simply not an option at most private schools where there is no adjunct union.

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