The New York Times recently brought news that that the union and faculty activists determined to establish a graduate student union at NYU have renewed their crusade. I use the phrase “union and faculty activists” deliberately, since it’s hard to imagine that any of the graduate students actually involved in the original controversy remain at NYU, unless they have experienced writers’ block in the production of their dissertations.
The matter appeared to be settled in 2004, when the NLRB understandably ruled that graduate students are primarily just that—students, not workers. The reaction on the NYU campus and among faculty and professional allies was fierce. Graduate student activists then serving as teaching assistants decided to penalize their own undergraduate students for the NLRB decision, going on strike and refusing to submit grades. In perhaps the most bizarre expression of support for the strikers’ cause, the AAUP declared that NYU’s refusal to recognize the union constituted a violation of both academic freedom and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights(!).
When NYU president John Sexton reasonably decided to hire for the spring 2006 semester only those graduate students who would commit to actually teaching their classes—rather than going on strike on NYU’s dime—a group of around 200 NYU professors calling themselves “Faculty Democracy” protested the “undemocratic” requirement. The signatories even threatened to withhold grades in their courses. In the end, except for a handful of malcontents, the situation returned to normal, and the strike fizzled.
As the Wall Street Journal astutely noted at the time, the very existence of the strike proved the inappropriateness of imposing a “union” approach on the relationship between graduate students and the private institution they had chosen to attend. “The real issue,” the Journal reasoned, “is whether the union mentality and the blunt weapon of collective bargaining are any way to advance academic excellence. The last four weeks at NYU demonstrate that they are not.”
There’s little evidence that the quality of NYU’s academic programs has suffered as a result of Sexton’s decision: it seems as if lots of Ph.D. students have decided that to attend NYU even though they can’t join a graduate student union. NYU officials appear confident they’ll be able to avoid an unfavorable ruling from the NLRB—though, given the partisan polarization over labor issues, that confidence might be poorly placed.
Ironically, the earlier “union” crusade already has had a negative effect for NYU graduate students—the Times reports that after the strike, NYU restructured its graduate aid packages to focus on fellowships rather than providing teaching opportunities. That change will make it harder for the union activists to contend that the graduate students are “workers.” But it also makes these students less competitive on the academic job market, since they won’t be able to show teaching experience.
Perhaps the current band of “union” activists have calculated that their experience play-acting as 1960s radicals will improve their job prospects with like-minded hiring committees, even if they can’t demonstrate an ability to teach.