NYU strike update

Today marks the 23rd day of the graduate employee strike at NYU, and the struggle has reached a crucial moment. On Monday, NYU President John Sexton sent out an email to all graduate assistants which both offered a number of concessions and laid down a chilling ultimatum. Graduate Employees who return to work by December 5 will face no penalties, will be guaranteed a teaching load of no more than one class per semester, will be given the financial benefits package the University offered prior to the strike, and will have all of these terms laid out in a legally binding written agreement. Graduate employees who remain on strike, however, will receive no assistanship next semester. Sexton's letter also articulates more severe penalties for any grad who returns to work for the remainder of this term but then strikes again in the spring.

The thing to say about Sexton's letter is that by making these concessions and adopting a more conciliatory tone, Sexton implicitly admits that the GSOC strike is having a significant effect. Furthermore, by making threats he admits that those effects are, from the administration's point of view, intolerable. In the face of this, he has adopted a strategy that mixes escalation with accomodation in an attempt to persuade the strikers that the benefits of winning recognition are swamped by the costs of continuing to fight.

Let me make two points about this.

First, the concessions Sexton has offered, while significant, are a weak substitute for collective bargaining. In his letter, Sexton characterizes the rejection of collective bargaining as a, "decision to work directly with our graduate students rather than through the intermediary of a union." This is a transparent attempt to introduce a false dichotomy between GSOC and its membership, to pretend that it is some amorphous entity, the union, with which NYU refuses to negotiate rather than with the graduate employees themselves. Under cover of this illusion Sexton introduces another fiction, that the concessions being offered represent a collaboration between grads and the administration rather than an imposition of terms at the university's discretion.

All of this is meant to manufacture the feeling among grads that the administration's offer will provide them with the level of security and participation that they would have gotten through a collectively bargained contract, but it just isn't so. There are many things that might be said to illustrate this, but the key, I think, is to consider how things will stand a few years down the road. If GSOC wins recognition and bargains a new contract then at the end of that contract's term they will still have a viable organization capable of advocating on behalf of grad employee concerns. If, on the other hand, grad employees accept Sexton's offer of individualized agreements then they will have sharply reduced bargaining power when those agreements expire.

Second, Sexton's ability to impose the sanctions he has threatened depends entirely on how strong GSOC's solidarity is when his deadline passes. If hundreds of GAs are out on strike come Tuesday and Sexton follows through and locks those GAs out, then the effect of his policy will be to guarantee that a situation the university finds intolerable continues through the entire spring semester. The fact of the matter is that NYU can neither replace hundreds of assistants in short order nor function effectively without their labor. In short, Sexton's threat is a bluff.

The question is, will GSOC stay strong enough to call that bluff? That's something I can't answer. They had a vibrant rally yesterday, and I understand that another is planned for Friday. Stay tuned.

Addendum: What with our recent outage around here, I've fallen down a bit on the NYU linking, so let me just say that the go to blogs for strike coverage are Nerds on Strike!, NYU Inc., and Weapon of Class Instruction. Check them out.

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