NYU’s ”Union” Activism Re-Emerges

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.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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2 thoughts on “NYU’s ”Union” Activism Re-Emerges

  1. John: The only student rights who were abandoned were those whose education was disrupted by the activities of the tantruming UAW; the undergraduate students who lost classes or had their grades held up had nothing to do with the dispute – most in fact supported the union. Of course, the same agitators who had no problem screwing with the educations of innocent and sympathetic parties reacted with shock and horror when NYU declined to pay them to refuse to teach the next semester. Boo hoo.
    I have absolutely no respect for the strikers; unlike a real union situation they put absolutely nothing at risk – their stipends had already been paid and their benefits weren’t affected at all.

  2. K.C. Johnson has both his facts and his morals confused. First, grad students at NYU are much better off because of the union activism and the resulting increase in fellowships. This hasn’t prevented students from teaching, and there’s no evidence of any harm to their job prospects.
    But the deeper error by Johnson is his embrace of repressive administrators banning graduate student unions. If unions are truly bad for graduate students, then the proper response for an intellectual is to logically convince graduate students by persuasion to vote against them. Banning a union (“union” in the patronizing rhetoric of Johnson) only shows the willingness of some conservatives to abandon student rights whenever it suits their ideology.

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