Why GSOC is winning

by Gordon Lafer
Washington Square News
December 09, 2005

To an outside observer, the most dramatic fact about
the current strike may be that all signs suggest that
the Graduate Student Organizing Committee is on the
verge of a huge victory. Since this fact seems to be
counterintuitive to many people, it’s worth laying out
the reasons I think so.

First, the Draconian threats that the administration
has made -- every one of which is illegal under federal
labor law -- are impossible to carry out. The
university claims that its intimidation tactics have
succeeded in scaring three-quarters of GAs into giving
up the strike. This number may or may not be real --
they probably have no accurate way of knowing, and
given the history of administrative hyper-spin, it’s
probably exaggerated. But even if just 250 GAs keep
striking, the administration can’t afford to enact its
threats. If NYU President John Sexton were to ban 250
graduate students from teaching and cut all their
funding for the spring semester, some of them would be
forced to drop out, and some international students
would be forced to leave the country. Departments with
strong participation in the union might find their
graduate programs hurt. There would be an enormous
outcry of protest from both graduate students and
faculty.

Normally, people on strike do not get paid. That was
the "punishment" that GSOC members were prepared for.
But NYU has kept paying strikers for a strategic
reason. Everyone knows that the National Labor
Relations Board case may be re-litigated under a
Democratic president. Docking the pay of strikers would
make it apparent that NYU is paying GAs for work and
not giving them a stipend for scholarly training. The
administration’s strategic choice to keep paying
strikers made it easier for people to stay out. But it
certainly doesn’t give the administration the right to
turn to the thuggish tactic of blacklisting.

It is noteworthy that, in repeated resolutions, even
those faculty who are not necessarily pro-union are
nevertheless opposed to President Sexton’s threats.
This is unsurprising, since each of these threats
violates both labor law and the most basic principles
of academic freedom. If the administration enacted
these threats, they would set off a firestorm of
protest on campus.

Moreover, it would make NYU a pariah in the broader
academic community. There are already more than 5,000
academics from around the English-speaking world who
have signed statements condemning the threats, and the
American Association of University Professors has
already passed a resolution of censure against these
threats. Blacklisting a few hundred doctoral candidates
would jeopardize both future applications to NYU and
the school’s ability to recruit top-flight faculty.

When President Sexton issued his threats, he was
playing his final card -- there is nowhere for the
administration to go from here. But this card is a
bluff. He played it with the hope of scaring GAs into
abandoning the strike soon enough that the threats
don’t have to be carried out. When GSOC called Sexton’s
bluff by voting to stay on strike past his deadline,
Sexton did the only thing he could do: He moved the
deadline back. It is no wonder that the administration
keeps grasping at any "alternative" strike-resolution
proposal that allows it to move its deadline back
further and further. Its only strategy is to keep
replaying the same bluff. But in the process, Sexton is
coming to look increasingly like Libyan strongman
Mouammar Qadaffi in an old Saturday Night Live skit --
"You cross this line, you die -- OK, now, you cross
this line, you die!"

At the same time, the administration can’t afford to
let the strike go on forever. When a strike is truly
weak, employers simply ignore the strikers. This strike
is too strong for that. A few hundred classes haven’t
been taught, and thousands of grades have gone
unrecorded, which is an undigestible problem for a
university. The administration has come up with only
temporary band-aid solutions, like allowing
undergraduates to take incomplete or pass/fail grades
for this semester. Were the administration to go
further -- using the midterm grades for final grades,
or letting students grade themselves -- this would
undermine the academic integrity of the operation in a
way that would likely both ignite faculty protest and
create suspicion about the meaning of an NYU
transcript.

Behind all its bluster, the administration is caught
between a rock and a hard place. I don’t know whether
its threats of reprisals will succeed in intimidating
GSOC to abandon its demand for negotiations. But if
even a minority of the union’s 1,000 members stand
fast, the university will have little choice but to
return to the negotiating table. For those who are now
seeking some resolution to the strike -- almost
everyone, that is -- the best course of action by far
is to continue backing GSOC’s demand for recognition
and negotiations. Supporting GSOC at this critical
moment is not only the morally right thing to do -- it
is also, by far, the most realistic strategy for
resolving the strike any time soon, and on terms that
preserve the bonds of community on campus and NYU’s
reputation in the outside world.

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Gordon Lafer is a professor of labor studies at the
University of Oregon and a specialist on issues of
academic labor. He is visiting at NYU this fall.