Reflections on the Graduate Teaching Assistant Strike at New York University

In 2002 New York University graduate teaching assistants became the first to win union representation at a private university after a long campaign. The university administration’s decision to recognize the union followed typical attempts by employers to defeat such struggles.

The NYU administration ultimately decided to negotiate with GSOC/UAW Local 2110 after the reversal of a previous National Labor Relations Board decision that stated private universities were under no legal obligation to recognize such unions. They had determined that graduate teachers were in fact students only and not employees—W2 not withstanding. New appointments by the Bush administration to the NLRB reversed the previous decision, providing a long awaited opportunity by the NYU administration, led by president John Sexton, to smash the union.

In the May of 2005 the administration made it clear its intent to destroy the union when it said it would not negotiate a new contract. This was followed by a public relations stunt—or “town hall meeting” as many colleges call them— in July when very few graduate teachers were around. There president Sexton and other officials attempted to lecture union members in a raucus atmosphere about disrupting the “educational mission” of the university. The contract ended on August 31, 2005 and the course was inevitably set for a strike. Union members voted for a strike on October 31 with an 85% majority. Teaching assistants walked off the job on November 9.

The strike was at its most intense for almost 6 weeks. However, it was ultimately defeated. The United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO placed significant prestige behind the strike, with president John Sweeney speaking at a solidarity rally on campus at the end of the contract. Prominent left wing Democratic Party national and local figures made speeches at rallies and in “town hall meetings”. Faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences overwhelming supported the union. The question is why was the strike defeated?

The answers to this can be found in three broad issues. First is the conservative role of union leaders. Union leadership pursued a strategy within a collective-bargaining framework for economic gains and promoted a demobilized and passive membership. This led to the erosion of the power of the union to engage in an offensive strategy.

Second was the lack of a political critique of the university system. The administration and its supporters were engaged in a frontal political attack on the union in the name of protecting the importance of education. There was no response.

Third is the vast majority of teaching assistants had little experience with unions let alone knowledge of lessons from labor history and struggles in education. Although there was a clear sense by many union members that the strike was narrowly conceived and defensively conducted, they were not prepared to organize independent power from the local’s leadership. Each of these factors is emblematic of the current state of politics both in the workplace and in higher education.

The Idiocy of University Life

The economy and politics of higher education are at the heart of teaching assistant efforts to keep their union. Large research universities run on the backs of its staff, out-sourced labor, adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants, while a handful—administration, tenured faculty, employers and the state—profit and claim to represent the social mission of the university.

This false claim is based on two interrelated premises. The first is that higher education (like all education) is somehow independent from the oppressive social relations that characterize society. The second is the claim that it is an ideal place where the free discussion of ideas and disinterested expert knowledge prevails for the public good. In this way universities claim to be carrying out the social mission of education in the interests of students and working people as a whole. However, it is clear that it does so only for the few.

Three factors are involved here. First is the ideological function of the university as an arm of the state. The second is the maintenance of the division between mental and manual labor. The third is the promotion of specialized knowledge among a caste of academics and researchers who answer to official society—the elites, bureaucracy and the ruling class—not the community.

The ideological function of the university involves not only socializing students into a narrow and partisan intellectual atmosphere that represents the interests of official society. This is intended to prepare them to take up positions of authority over working people. The other ideological function of the university is to provide a platform for representatives of official society—such as corporate bosses, politicians and Washington intellectuals—to speak and propagate ideas. This breeding of a public philosophy is meant to “legislate” the interests of official society as the common interests of all. The goal of the university establishment is to remain the legitimate voices on all questions, whether imperialism in the Middle East or the American economy. The final ideological objective is to discourage independent student activity.

The justification of the division between mental and manual labor is also central to the state and corporate control of college education. The certification of the technical and scientific aspects of work through a “degree” was taken from the workplace itself where it was taught on the job by workers themselves and their own knowledge and regimented into the hands of supervisors who were said now to be professionally trained in management of manual workers. This was accelerated by the state responding to demands for education by expanding public college education. Today people outside all kinds of workplaces are being hired to fill positions of authority over internal promotion because that person has a “degree”, whereas workers who have 15 or 20 years on the job and know the business in and out don’t have one. The division between mental and manual labor creates not only false authority within the workplace to control working people, it also creates bureaucratic categories of false expertise that attempts to prop up the illusion that the managers are running the workplace and not workers.

The final factor is the role of the faculty. Overwhelmingly, faculty are committed to producing a body of specialized knowledge that obeys the procedures and commitments of a narrow caste of professional researchers and academics who, they imagine, are their audience. By and large, it produces knowledge for official society that, among other things, objectifies working people and justifies current social relations. Claims of progressive critique by a small section of this faculty produces more or less a highly aestheticized and depoliticized one that allows them to accept the lack of control over higher education by the community. In contrast to the tradition of the community-based scholar and intellectual, exemplified by an earlier era of political intellectual in working class and black communities, their critiques are often made as “professionals” with no responsibility to any constituency or community.

A challenge for many students (and non-students alike) in this era has been to constitute independent means of educating themselves by using the infrastructure of the university, especially scholarships and the immense library facilities. It is a profound desire based on the lack of correspondence between the classroom and the realities outside. Sadly, much of this happens alone or, at best, in small groups. The struggle to keep the TA union is part of this larger desire.

“Our Graduate Students”

The institutional and social function of the university I have described combines with an overwhelmingly feudal and paternalistic attitude by university management towards students. This attitude is a product of the university’s institutional function projected through the contradictory idea that it is a place where the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is paramount. This paternalistic attitude—summed up in the administration’s continual use of the phrase “our graduate students” in their public relations directing a vicious union busting campaign—by and large determined the political propaganda leveled at union members during the strike.

Close to 75% of all classes at NYU are taught by adjuncts or graduate teaching assistants for very little pay and long hours. This is the case for many research universities. A handful of well-paid and compensated full-time faculty are promoted as scholars and researchers to maintain the symbolic legitimacy of the university on the one hand, and on the other to provide research for corporations and the state. As much as possible other employment that keeps the university business running is out-sourced. In the area of teaching, university management seeks to out-source labor costs when possible and cut wages by structuring competition to this end.

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Comments are closed.