The Nerds Are Pissed

New York University opts for war with its best and brightest

"Nerds" is their term, not mine. It comes from a flyer, one of dozens tacked around Washington Square Park these days. "The nerds are pissed," it reads. "Nerds on strike," reads another. Not exactly your standard union slogans, but a self- deprecating sense of humor is just one of the tactics that some 1,000 graduate teaching assistants adopted when they declared themselves on strike last week against the administration of New York University, the nation's largest private college and the sprawling behemoth that has come to dominate the Village, both east and west.

Not that the nerd tag is completely undeserved. By the university's own admission, its graduate assistants comprise the best and brightest on campus. Selected for their academic excellence, grad assistants are provided with tuition waivers and stipends (now up to $19,000, thanks to their union) in exchange for agreeing to teach and grade, and otherwise supplement the educational needs of undergraduate students. Like their counterparts at Yale, Columbia, Brown, and other campuses, however, the graduate students have complained that they're often used as little more than an ever expandable pool of cheap labor, and therefore in need of union protection. Those demands have set off a series of clashes that have created the greatest campus disruptions since the anti-war and civil rights battles of the 1960s. NYU's current fracas threatens to be the worst so far.

Inside jokes and collegiate trappings aside, there's little to distinguish this fight from the kind of bitter, take-no-prisoners labor-management standoffs that have come to characterize the George W. Bush era. NYU's decision to revoke its recognition of the union representing graduate assistants came after the Bush-controlled National Labor Relations Board gave it a bright green light to do so last year. The panel ruled that the assistants are students, not employees with bargaining rights. The 3-2 decision, which overturned an earlier ruling by a Clinton-appointed board, was part of the lesser-known collateral damage inflicted by the pro-business Republican president.

As soon as the board ruled, NYU's leaders began signaling that they intended to renounce their 2001 labor agreement with the students, a pact that was the first-ever graduate assistants' contract signed by a private university. The sole reason, officials insisted, was that the union had failed to abide by its pledge not to file grievances concerning matters of academic procedure. That argument puzzled the union, however, since NYU had won all of the key grievances it cited as examples of that interference. In both cases, arbitrators had pointed to ironclad clauses in the contract that protected the university's right to select instructors, even when it meant steering the work to assistants paid far less, or even importing them from off campus. The union had indicated it was willing to live with that arrangement, however much it hobbled its functions.

The school's final contract proposal, union officials said, was a take-it-or-leave-it offer filled with poison pills that would have gutted its ability to represent its members and placed many instructors outside the bargaining unit.

As a sign of how important labor viewed the fight, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney got himself arrested at a protest at the university in September. On the other side, conservative pundit George Will enshrined the moment in a column mocking both Sweeney and the graduate students' union, the United Auto Workers Local 2110 (the same organization that represents Voice employees).

As of this writing, no talks are under way in the strike. Instead, a huge inflated gray rat now sits in front of soaring Bobst Library on Washington Square South. A picket line that ranges during the day from a few dozen to several hundred graduate students dances up and down the block, complete with chants, shrill whistles, booming drums fashioned out of plastic buckets, even a trumpet.

Last week, some 400 faculty members agreed to move their classes off campus in response to a union request. In compliance, one theater professor dispatched his class to evaluate "the element of carnival" and "use of space" in the graduate students' picket lines. Another held his art class in the park, with a dozen students splattering paint, Pollock-style, on large Masonite boards. Most undergrads expressed sympathy and guarded solidarity. "Graduate students do a lot," said Emily Richard, a senior in the art class. "Why should they have to work in a coffee shop to make enough to live on?"

NYU administrators began talking about the union in the past tense at meetings early this summer. "We've put that behind us" was the phrase invoked by NYU president John Sexton when asked about the contract. Since then the rhetoric has become even more strident. "The union can either die a quick death or a slow death," Sexton said, according to a member of a faculty contingent that pleaded with him last Tuesday on the eve of the strike deadline to get back to the bargaining table. (An NYU spokesman denied Sexton said that.)

"We told him that the union isn't going to go away," said Andrew Ross, a professor who organized the delegation. "It is going to be here next semester, and the semester after that. There will not be peace on campus." A case in point, said Ross, is Yale, where graduate teaching assistants have never succeeded in winning a contract but have protested every year. "We said it will be so much worse to break a union that already existed," Ross said. "And it is just silly to do so, right here in New York City."

But the administration claims it is ready to endure whatever disruptions the strike creates. In the meeting, Ross said, Sexton "made it quite clear that he has become progressively more committed to this policy. He said his own convictions have hardened."

NYU spokesman John Beckman said the strike's impact was "minimal" last week, but offered no statistics on classes that were moved off campus or not held.

Ironically, despite the special help provided by Bush's NLRB, the university's administration has been guided by two key Sexton aides, both of whom emerged not from the GOP or corporate America, but from the Clinton White House. NYU's vice president for operations is Jacob Lew, who served as the head of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton; Cheryl Mills, an attorney who defended Clinton on the impeachment charges before the U.S. Senate, is another top Sexton adviser.

But the tactics reflect a corporate agenda. As the strike got under way, several faculty members were aghast to find that university administrators had quietly been signed onto the electronic bulletin boards that are used for communicating on the Web with students. The potential for cyber-eavesdropping was clear, but when complaints were registered the administrators were quickly removed from the sites. It had been a "technical error," officials said.

Administration officials also began trotting out veiled threats. Striking grad students "should anticipate that there are likely to be appropriate consequences," a letter from the head of the university's math department warned teaching assistants last week, according to a report on the insidehighered.com website.

What would those consequences be? "There may come a time when we have that conversation," responded NYU spokesman Beckman. "Our priority is ensuring the educational progress of our students."

Not surprisingly, that's exactly the argument invoked by the striking graduate assistants. "Most of us are making the commitment to be the next generation of faculty," said Susan Valentine. "To get there, we have to go through this process, and many of us will be at this the rest of our lives."

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