When I moved to NYC to start a Ph.D. program at NYU in 2000, my biggest concern was not the rigors of graduate study or the challenge of moving to another new city alone. It was the fear of being unable to survive economically.

Sure, I was going to work in addition to being a student: as a graduate assistant, or GA, for my department. GAs work as research assistants (RAs) or teaching assistants (TAs).

The work of an RA might include co-editing an article with a professor, but often it consists of administrative duties such as making copies. I once moved a professor’s office furniture on a dolly down the middle of Broadway.

We also teach. Teaching assistants in my department attend the course lecture (75% of more taught by adjuncts across the university) and may teach several recitations, which are sub-sections of the lecture. I have had as many as 80 students across 3 recitations that met weekly, for which I would prepare lectures, host discussions, hold office hours, and grade stacks of papers throughout the semester.

Prior to the union contract, I received $10,000 a year in the form of biweekly paychecks. (Not sure where the rest of the approximately $3,000,000 that my 80 students paid annually in tuition went.) As the recipient of a wage income and therefore a worker according to the IRS, I paid taxes on that $10,000.

Obviously, this was not enough to live on in NYC, so I had to find other forms of support. Working outside of the assistantship is logistically challenging because as students we may also have a full course load, comprehensive exams, and dissertation proposals, not to mention children or other obligations.

Being the first to attend college in my working class family, I had no economic cushion to fall back on, so I applied for federal student loans. Since NYU counted my free tuition as “income,” however, I was eligible for only a small loan. Enter the credit card.

Why do we struggle so? Because, unlike President John Sexton and the NYU brass, we truly are passionately devoted to academic freedom and advanced intellectual inquiry, and we think the university should be the place where we can pursue that.

But we need a living wage for our work, to do so we need to be recognized as workers to get that wage, and the union is our only voice to negotiate on equal terms with a powerful and vastly wealthy institution. NYU cannot advocate for us, nor can any form of “student government.” It’s that simple.

I joined the GSOC organizing committee early on, and even though we won the right to form a union by NLRB decision in 2000, we had to fight a resistant administration every step of the way: NYU only came to the bargaining table on the eve of a strike authorization vote. We won a fair contract with increases in stipends, full healthcare, workload protection, childcare provisions, and many other benefits. More importantly, we gained the power to advocate for ourselves.

Upon expiration of our first contract this year, however, NYU pronounced that it would not negotiate a second contract: the university itself would willingly continue and even expand the benefits that they now claim were not the result of the union contract, but of their own interest in remaining a competitive institution! And even while they make this ridiculous assertion, they have already started slashing those very benefits, reducing health insurance coverage, for example, directly after the expiration of the contract in September.

We voted overwhelmingly to strike, and just three weeks into our strike, President Sexton issued an e-mail ultimatum on November 28th: striking workers who do not return to work by December 5th will lose their stipends and eligibility to teach in the spring; those who agree to teach next spring, but who are absent without approval from the dean, will be suspended from assignments and lose their stipends for two consecutive semesters.

This is especially threatening for international students, whose visa status depends on guaranteed income, since they cannot legally work outside of NYU. Naturally NYU administration hoped this classic union-busting strategy of intimidation would frighten some back to work, enough to crush the strike and return to business as usual. And it has scared us: our jobs, our education, our status in this country, and our future are on the line. But Sexton has now played his final card and showed the administration’s true colors: such a flagrant disregard for labor rights demonstrates more than ever exactly why we need our union.

And the ultimatum has even further ignited our campaign: the labor movement, city and state elected officials, faculty, and community leaders reaffirmed their solid commitment for the duration of the strike at a lively Dec. 2 rally on the picket line. City Council members are freezing funds and permits for NYU until it negotiates with us, parents of undergraduate students are sending us unsolicited messages of support, and academic departments are voting to not replace striking labor.

This is not a battle within the ivory tower, as the administration would like us to believe, and we are not some privileged elite, as honored as we are to be affiliated with our university. We work, we receive paychecks, and we are entitled to the rights afforded to workers, even if we happen to be employed by the same institution that enrolls us as students.

This is truly an historic moment for graduate student organizing, for the future of the university as an institution, and the labor movement at large. We believe that GSOC Local 2110 UAW will prevail, but we need your support.

Join us on the picket line every day in front of Bobst Library on Washington Square Park until we win our second contract and go to  http://www.2110uaw.org/gsoc to find out more.
A Lesson