In a show of labor unity, an array of the nation’s most powerful union leaders-representing both sides of the split that divided organized labor this summer-rallied in support of striking New York University graduate assistants today.
The rally, put together on two days notice according to organizers, demonstrated how deeply trade unions are invested in seeing the graduate teaching assistants achieve a win in the increasingly bitter dispute. The event was sparked by an ultimatum issued earlier this week by NYU President John Sexton who said strikers had to end their 24-day-old walkout by December 5th or face termination from their teaching fellowships.
Among those using a lone bullhorn to address a crowd of 1000 strikers and supporters along Washington Square Park, were AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and John Wilhelm, a top leader of UNITE-HERE, the hotel and garment workers union that split away from the labor federation in September in a dispute over organizing strategies.
Wilhelm told the strikers, members of United Auto Workers Local 2110 (the same union that represents Voice employees), that they were doing exactly what labor needs to do to grow.
“We sit around and talk about the need to expand the labor movement; we talk about the need to expand into the knowledge industry; we talk about bringing young people into the labor movement,” said Wilhelm. “Well, you’re not only talking about it, you’re doing it.”
Sweeney said that the NYU administration’s labor policies had earned them a place in a list of human rights violators. “To take away your collective bargaining rights is a disgrace,” said Sweeney, who was arrested in an NYU protest this summer.
UAW president Ron Gettelfinger said that university representatives had behaved “less honorably” than leaders of auto makers which employ most of the union’s 30,000 members. “Our relationship with the Big Three was built on respect; that’s not what we’re receiving here.”
NYU’s Sexton announced in late August that he was withdrawing the university’s recognition of the union as a result of what he said were attempts to interfere with academic process at the school. The move came after a 3-2 ruling by the Bush-controlled National Labor Relations Board that graduate teaching assistants, who are paid to handle undergraduate classes, are not employees but students without bargaining rights.
Since then, labor unions have made the NYU walkout a key battleground. Other union honchos who showed up at Friday’s rally were state AFL-CIO chief Denis Hughes, New York Central Labor Council president Brian McLaughlin, and transit workers union leader Roger Toussaint whose own contract talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stalled yesterday.
Even the leader of the city’s 120,000 Teamster union members, Gary LaBarbera, appeared, telling the rally that his union had confronted the university over its attempts to build a new multi-million dollar structure with non union labor. “We won that fight and we’ll win this one,” said LaBarbera.
Michael Palm, the head of the Graduate Students’ Organizing Committee, said NYU’s anti-union bias was clear. “NYU likes to say we don’t have a problem with unions, just with this one. Well this rally shows that organized labor has a problem with them.”
An NYU spokesman, John Beckman, denied it. “NYU supports the rights of members of the university community to express their views and opinions, and we welcome their input, the input of elected officials and labor leaders, and the input of others who came by bus,” he said in a statement.
Beckman also restated Sexton’s Monday, December 5th deadline for strikers to return to their teaching posts. He said that while the university would continue to extend free health care and tuition to striking grad assistants, it will cancel stipends, which average $19,000.
“This shows that they see you as workers not students,” said Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein. “You don’t fire students, you fire workers.”
The strikers also drew political support, including Representative Jerrold Nadler, state senator Tom Duane, and city council members Christine Quinn and Bill DeBlasio, both of whom are seeking election to post of Council Speaker in which the support of labor is deemed crucial.