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On Strike at NYU

My doctoral institution, that private university in the public service, was at one point not too many years ago ahead of the pack in its recognition of its grad-student union. That recognition has of course now been withdrawn, and the university’s failure to negotiate with the union at all resulted in a decision by the union to go on strike back in early November.

The university’s administration, and particularly NYU President John Sexton, however, have retaliated against the grad students in a series of heavy-handed ways, including infiltrating the campus’s Blackboard installation in order to find out which faculty members were supporting the strike. Now Sexton has sent the students an ultimatum: any students who remain on strike as of Monday will be denied next semester’s assistantship, and any who return to strike next semester will be deprived of a full year’s funding.

A coalition of NYU faculty in support of the union has written a letter asking for the help of the academic community nationwide. The full text of the letter is below the fold, but let me just note this, here: Something big is definitely brewing when Andrew Ross and Alan Sokal are standing shoulder-to-shoulder.


Teaching assistants at NYU conducted a union drive in 1999-2000, won an election, and affiliated with the United Auto Workers (in a local that also includes other educational professionals in NYC such as Museum of Modern Art and New York Historical Society employees). The NYU administration fought hard against the union but was ultimately forced to recognize and negotiate with it by the National Labor Relations Board. There followed a 3 year contract that brought the teaching assistants health benefits and a stipend increase. During this time the university ran quite smoothly.

In the summer of 2005, released from the obligation to negotiate by a new Bush-appointed NLRB, the NYU administration un-recognized the union and has been refusing to negotiate with it. Given this extreme provocation, the union had virtually no alternative but to strike.

They began striking on Nov. 9 and several hundred professors have been teaching off-campus so as not to cross the picket line. The administration -‚Äì really, President John Sexton -‚Äì steadily refuses to deal with the union. He has ignored a compromise proposal by a former dean. At one point several administrators infiltrated course websites (using the program “Blackboard”) so as to be able to determine which faculty and teaching assistants were supporting the strike; this resulted in widespread faculty outrage and the deans quickly withdrew from that effort.

Now President Sexton has again thrown a bombshell: he has threatened that any TAs who do not return to work by Dec. 5 will be deprived of an entire semester’s stipend and those who dare to return to a strike in the next semester will lose an entire year’s funding.

Such an action would be unprecedented. Graduate student employees have struck at many other universities, including those in the Ivy League and those just as anti-union as the NYU administration, but nowhere have such draconian reprisals ever been taken. Moreover, to date American workers retain a right to strike. While employers may well withhold wages during a strike, punishing strikers for a semester or a year afterward is illegal. The basic disagreement between the students and President Sexton is whether they are workers or not, and his point of view must be reckoned with, but surely the action of assistants who believe that they are workers cannot be criminalized because one disagrees.

If this threatened punishment is allowed to happen it will set a disastrous example for democratic debate at universities throughout the country. It would also cause irreparable harm to the reputation of NYU. We believe it will make it much for difficult for the university to recruit and retain the best faculty and graduate students.

Hundreds of faculty have formed a group, Faculty Democracy, to protest President Sexton’s policy and to push for greater administration consultation with faculty on important decisions -‚Äì a consultation which, if undertaken seriously, might have prevented this whole debacle.

We urge scholars and intellectuals throughout the country to urge President Sexton to drop his threats and agree to negotiate with the union. He can be reached at 70 Washington Square, NY, NY 10012 and by email at

Please send a copy of your communication to any sender of this letter.

Thank you,

Linda Gordon, History

Andrew Ross, American Studies

Alan Sokal, Physics

Mary-Louise Pratt, Spanish

writing for the group Faculty Democracy, numbering approximately 250


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