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Grad Students Battle NYU Over Right to Organize a Union

More than 125 faculty members signed a letter complaining that they had not been consulted when NYU announced its resolution to oppose the union. "From year to year," the letter reads, "we lose more and more of our capacity to shape institutional policy and exercise academic freedoms." Andrew Ross, director of American studies, says, "Our speech was compromised in a way that could have adversely affected faculty-student relations."

While the administration insists that the union question is still open, students in the history and sociology departments, in particular, have complained that in meetings with Catharine Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), their questions have been ignored or answered evasively.

"These are big questions," Dean Stimpson replies. "What does it mean to be listened to? Is it entering into a conversation of mutuality or getting what you want?" Stimpson, a distinguished feminist scholar, believes that the GAs' life will improve with a new funding policy the university has unveiled. Beginning next fall, doctoral students in good standing will receive a minimum of $13,000 as a stipend, along with tuition remission and a subsidy toward NYU health insurance. Stimpson promises to "advocate" for affordable housing—"Financial aid is something I believe in deeply"—and says this plan has been discussed for a decade.

Protesters rally against NYU in Washington Square Park.
photo: Annie Chia
Protesters rally against NYU in Washington Square Park.

No graduate students will refuse the extra money, of course, but there are some who believe the administration implemented the plan abruptly to block the union (as Yale did). Faculty and students in the history department will issue a press release this week in response to the proposed changes. Their main contention is that as a result of the new policy, which implies that new students must be fully funded, the number of students they can accept will decrease significantly. They foresee this altering the diversity of the departments—with part-time and partially funded students being discouraged. The hardest hit are likely to be smaller departments: Latin American, Asian, and African diaspora studies.

Dean Stimpson says that the connection between the new funding policy and unionizing is "nonsense," as is the idea that GSAS is streamlining its student body. "We are not setting a cap on the number of fully funded students who can enroll; we are setting a floor," and it will be up to the departments to nominate students for other aid, such as the 12 "opportunity fellowships" for minorities.

NYU's union problems, however, extend beyond the students' issues. For some weeks, the administration has faced protests from local construction unions who want NYU to persuade developer Alex Forkosh, who is building an NYU dorm, to use union workers. Meanwhile, Local 3882, the union that represents NYU's 1600 clerical and technical workers, is preparing for contract negotiations. And earlier this month, under pressure from NYU No Sweat, part of a national student movement that raises awareness about sweatshops, NYU "conditionally" agreed to join the Workers Rights Consortium, allowing observers to monitor working conditions in facilities where university apparel and licensed products are manufactured. These groups are now calling on NYU to initiate a fair and just labor policy on campus as well.

On Tuesday, March 7, a 12-foot inflatable rat peered southward from Washington Square Park toward Bobst Library, where it was rumored that the NYU Board of Trustees was to meet. Some 2000 union men and women had massed to protest the Forkosh project on the northeast corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. Forkosh has been cited by OSHA for four safety violations at the site, including lack of protection to prevent workers from falling. "Construction is dangerous, so safety is part of the cost of the project," says Anthony Pugliese, organizer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. "We hope NYU will come to their senses and incur the cost to convert this to a union project, because it's their signature on the lease that gave Forkosh instant credibility." At another Forkosh site, 130 West 46th Street, a worker fell nine floors to his death. At every union-run site, Pugliese points out, there is a safety inspector on duty.

At the rally, Lisa Jessup, an organizer for the UAW, spoke in fiery rhetoric about NYU: "They don't get words like 'greed'; they're sitting on a billion-dollar endowment and yet they hire workers at half wages; they don't understand words like 'shame.' They should be ashamed to risk one more worker's life with Forkosh. They need to understand the word 'rat.' They're not a 'private university in the public service,' they're a rat corporation in the service of scabs." A spirited crowd chanted, "Shame on you, NYU, shame on you, NYU." Amid this call and response was an outpouring of support for the graduate students, and, for the moment, it seemed that the definition of "worker" unquestionably included blue- and white-collar alike.

NYU representatives stood along the outskirts of the park, phoning back to headquarters. A press release handed out by NYU spokesman John Beckman reads, "We are distressed that he is using non-union labor . . . but Mr. Forkosh is not building for New York University. . . . The University will be a tenant, and I think any reasonable New Yorker will understand that as a tenant, our power to insist on how Mr. Forkosh should construct the building is limited." But then again, the average New Yorker is not one of the largest landowners and employers in the city.

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