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NYU Grad Student Strike: A Debate On the Rights of Students to Unionize

StoryDecember 02, 2005
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The New York University graduate student strike has entered its 24th day. On November 9th, some of the school’s graduate student teaching and research assistants went on strike in an effort to force the school to recognize the graduate student union. We host a debate between Michael Palm, chair of the student union, and Paul Boghossian, professor of philosophy who is representing the administration. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this week, N.Y.U. President John Sexton threatened to block any striking student from receiving financial stipends next semester or the eligibility to teach courses if they continued striking after this coming Monday. Sexton wrote, "The time has come for the university to insist that the academic needs of its undergraduates be met... Such disruption must not continue."

The strike has gained the attention of the national labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Auto Workers, are both expected to attend a rally today outside the N.Y.U. library at noon.

For years, N.Y.U. has been at the forefront of a nationwide struggle to organize graduate student assistants. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board gave the N.Y.U. students the right to unionize making N.Y.U. the first private university to have a graduate student employee union. The students are on strike because earlier this year the school stopped recognizing the union after the labor board reversed its policy on graduate student unions.

  • Michael Palm, chairperson of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at New York University.
  • Paul Boghossian, a professor of Philosophy at New York University.

New York City Indymedia has more coverage

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our New York studio by Michael Palm, Chair of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee [G.S.O.C.] at N.Y.U. On the phone with us is Paul Boghossian, a Professor of Philosophy at N.Y.U. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to start with Michael. The university, on the one hand, has been saying that your strike has not affected much of the activities, but yet on the other hand now they are saying that if you don’t go back by Monday, that these repercussions will occur. Your response?

MICHAEL PALM: Well, as you’ve said, its clear that they have drastically changed their tune in the three-plus weeks we’ve been strike. The first move, as other administrations have done at other universities where there have been strikes, is to say there’s nothing to see here, business as usual, the strike is not having an effect; and N.Y.U. did the same. But it didn’t take long for them to realize that they would not be able to complete the work of this semester without the graduate assistants who are out on strike. And the primary reason for that is the grading, and that’s why the threats from President Sexton came down when they did, in order to get us back to work to clean up the work of the semester.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you say the grading, when are grades due and what is the role of your union members in that?

MICHAEL PALM: Union members in our union are teaching assistants and also research assistants and some graduate assistants who do administrative type work, but the vast majority are teaching assistants who teach smaller sections for larger lecture classes and do the bulk of the grading in those classes.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your demands?

MICHAEL PALM: Our demand is singular and quite simple, that N.Y.U. sit at the bargaining table with us and negotiate a second contract.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Boghossian, you’re speaking for the N.Y.U. administration. What is your response to that demand?

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, the basic — the basic thought behind refusing to continue recognizing graduate student union is that we don’t believe that students are employees, and we think that the only people who are really entitled to be represented by a collective bargaining unit and a labor union are people who are primarily employees. Our basic impulse is not to want to lock into place a relationship to our graduate students, whom we treat as developing colleagues, that considers them to be laborers, and we don’t want to institutionalize that relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, your response?

MICHAEL PALM: There’s no question that we are students. We are enrolled as graduate students at N.Y.U., we take classes, we take exams, we write dissertations. There is also no question that we work at N.Y.U., grading papers, working in the offices, working in the labs is work, and there is also no question that our first contract has made us better teachers, researchers and assistants at N.Y.U. Our first contract raised our stipends by an average of 40%. It provided employer-paid healthcare, paid leave, paid training for our work, and the — as I said, the demand is simple, that graduate students have demonstrated again and again that we want to be represented by a union, we are better at our jobs for being represented by a union, and that we want a second contract.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Boghossian.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, you see, you have to ask yourself: How do we decide whether a group of people really are employees, part time or not? And you can see that that would be a distorted description of the relationship that we have to these students. By observing that even if we lived in the utopian world in which money was no object, it would still not be true that we would devise doctoral programs with no teaching component.

When you prepare someone for a Ph.D. and an eventual academic career, you have to prepare them for the craft of constructing a course syllabus, lecturing, grading, interacting with students, and so forth. So a certain amount of teaching is going to simply be built into the apprenticeship that we call doctoral training.

Now, if there are areas or departments in which there are problems, and teaching exceeds what you could justify in this way or it’s not of the right sort, that can be fixed within the confines of the kind of research university we’re trying to build. I don’t think that the right solution to it is to freeze into place a conception of what the graduate students do as something to be bargained over as mere labor, rather than intelligently integrated into the doctoral training that we provide.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Professor Boghossian, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions on those points. Number one is: There are other universities, other public universities that do have graduate student unions, so while N.Y.U. is the first private university, it’s not as if this is something totally new. Also, the analogy that you raise about the need to be trained as teachers, interns in residence in New York City in the medical profession are able to organize themselves and have representation while they are learning to be doctors, so, I mean, I think that there are similar examples in other fields.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Yeah, there may well be and, you know, the conditions at public university, I don’t know that much about the residency point that you raise, but the conditions at public universities by and large are very different from the kinds of conditions that you will find at a private university like N.Y.U. You know, they are made to teach from basically the first year often in many public universities. They teach throughout their graduate careers.

It’s much more — and that teaching is obviously being used to fund the aid packages that the students receive, which are considerable at N.Y.U. The overall value of an aid package to a student is in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year, so I think the conditions are very different at public universities. At private universities, we have the luxury of being able to address whatever issues arise by crafting a better research university, rather than reverting to this distorted conception of the students as laborers.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Palm?

MICHAEL PALM: Yeah, I think I need to point out three distortions in Professor Boghossian’s comments. First of all, the $50,000 figure that N.Y.U. has started to throw around is an accounting fiction. It’s padded by the fact that the bulk of that $50,000 figure is financial aid that they’re figuring is what the cost of the tuition is at N.Y.U. We are paid this year a guaranteed minimum of $19,000, and we have our contract to thank for that. Before the contract, graduate assistants were paid as low as $10,000, and often less.

Secondly, the distinction that he’s drawing between public and private universities is no longer there. At N.Y.U. roughly three-fourths of the classes are taught by contingent workers: adjuncts and graduate students.

And the third thing is that the broader point is that the unionization movement among graduate assistants and among adjuncts did not happen in a vacuum, that this movement has started in response to the corporatization of private universities, as well as public universities, which are now being run on a bottom-line model that is trying to maximize the return on the labor of those contingent workers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You’re saying three-quarters of the classes are being taught —

MICHAEL PALM: When the adjunct professors at N.Y.U. unionized last year, which they were able to do largely based on the boost that they got from our first contract, that was the number that they were publicizing. That three-quarters of classes were taught by non-tenure track faculty at N.Y.U.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Boghossian.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, I really —- I don’t know about that figure, really. It strikes me as false, but, you know -—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get that figure? Let me just get a response. Where did you get that figure?

MICHAEL PALM: That’s the number that the adjuncts were publicizing during their organizing drive last spring. Perhaps it’s decreased significantly since then. I seriously doubt it.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Boghossian.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: But, you know, this is what points out the weakness in the argument on the other side. There really is a difference between the graduate students and the adjuncts. I mean, Michael is lumping them all together into the category of contingent workers. The adjuncts really did deserve to unionize. I mean, they really are employees, and their labor is used to drive a certain amount of the engine of N.Y.U., and it is very important to protect their rights.

But graduate students are people who are given the privilege of coming to a doctoral program in philosophy, as it might be, or biology, or whatever, and are paid a large amount of money for the privilege of pursuing a degree that will then put — that will then put them in a position to have a significantly better life. It’s really not comparable.

And the $50,000 figure, by the way, is not a fiction. I mean, tuition really does cost a lot of money. It costs a lot of money to our undergraduates who are currently unable to get the education that they paid for.

MICHAEL PALM: But you can’t buy groceries with tuition remission.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: No, but you can buy it with the $20,000 stipend, plus the health benefits and so forth.

MICHAEL PALM: Which we have our first contract to thank.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, that’s debatable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Professor Boghossian, I’d like to ask you: What about this issue of the university now threatening more draconian measures starting next week. Do you support that?

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, you know, I — look, the university is perfectly within its right to think that this strike is baseless, and it certainly is not sanctioned by the law. Our undergraduates have paid a large amount of money to get an education at N.Y.U., and the university has a responsibility to make sure that they do. You know, I just — I think it has been extremely tolerant in waiting for three weeks before it announced anything to allow people to express their views, but I think now it’s time to go on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your response, and also, the issue of the impact on the undergraduate students of your job action?

MICHAEL PALM: There is no doubt that the strike has been very disruptive at N.Y.U. Like I said, they wouldn’t be issuing these ultimatums and threats of a black list of striking graduate students if it hadn’t been. And I think that’s only further evidence that the university does rely on the work we do as graduate students. The adjuncts are not out on sympathy strike with us. The only people who are not going to be doing the grading at the end of the semester are the graduate employees working as T.A.s. And so, there may be a distinction, and Professor Boghossian is right, the adjuncts have every right to a union, and I am delighted that they have been able to win a contract for themselves, as well, but in this situation, it’s our workers who are out on strike, and it’s our — it’s the withholding of our labor that has caused the disruption at N.Y.U.

AMY GOODMAN: Why aren’t they supporting you, the adjuncts who just unionized?

MICHAEL PALM: They are supporting us, tremendously, as are all of the unions at N.Y.U. In their contracts they have no sympathy strike clauses, which means they can’t walk out on strike with us, but they are doing a number of things to support us. Not just the adjuncts, but the clerical workers, the security workers. There are a number of other unions at N.Y.U.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Professor Boghossian: You said when Michael Palm said that in terms of the money they get now, it’s as a result of the first contract, and you said, well, "That’s debatable." Why?

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, you know, it’s very hard to trace the causal relationship. N.Y.U. has been on a blazing trajectory towards becoming one of the great research universities of the world. That by itself, so for instance, if I may toot my own horn for a second, you know, the Philosophy Department is ranked the undisputed number one department in the world. Now that by itself, okay, provides a mechanism by which these aid packages are going to improve, because we are competing with Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and so forth, where the aid packages are very generous, and in order to attract the best students, the aid packages have to improve. And that was the primary engine behind what happened in the Philosophy Department. So, I don’t really know that you can say it was the first contract that did it. It would have happened anyway in a large variety of departments that are increasingly among the most competitive in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Palm?

MICHAEL PALM: N.Y.U. had a variety of very well-respected and well-ranked programs before our first contract. And in some of those programs, as I said, the teaching assistants were still paid as low as $10,000, and the generous financial packages that include financial aid, etc., that Professor Boghossian mentioned were bumped up in response to that first contract. Even before we won it, as they were bumped up in response to the organizing, as a way to try to squash the organizing. And it wasn’t just at N.Y.U. When we started organizing when we won our first contract, the other universities where there were organizing campaigns, such as Columbia, raised their stipends to match ours. So, the effect of organizing is simply indisputable.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there are other private university graduate student unions that are beginning to organize?

MICHAEL PALM: There are several that have been organizing for over a decade, and they identify absolutely with our struggle, and they know that their best chance for a contract for themselves is for to us to retain our rights and to win a second contract, and they have been sending money, they have been sending organizers from as far away as the University of Illinois. Some of our colleagues from the grad union at Yale have been down here for months helping us organize.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what about this issue that the N.L.R.B. has reversed its position as to whether graduate students can be in unions?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the National Labor Relations Board.

MICHAEL PALM: Right. Professor Boghossian is right. We are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act. If we were, the threats in President Sexton’s e-mail last week would be illegal. And the important thing to remember about the N.L.R.B. is that in 2000, when they said — when the Clinton era N.L.R.B. said that N.Y.U. had to negotiate with us, that wasn’t what brought them to the table. They were still trying to appeal that decision. They had very expensive lawyers that they were hiring to appeal that decision. It was only in response to a strike vote held by G.S.O.C. that brought them to the table. More importantly, the decision last year when the Bush board overturned the Clinton-era decision, there’s nothing in that decision that prevents N.Y.U. from coming to the table. It just says they don’t have to, and therefore we have to make them come to the table.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Boghossian, are you working with other private universities, since they might be concerned, like Yale, like other universities, that their students will organize?

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: No, no, not at all. Nobody is asking for it anyway.

MICHAEL PALM: Well, I can tell you that last February in a town hall meeting with graduate students, where every question President Sexton got was about if he was going to negotiate with our union, he finally admitted, 'Look, I'm under a lot of pressure from my colleagues at other private universities, particularly the Ivy Leagues, because they know that if we win a second contract it’s going to be a huge boost to the organizing campaigns there. Our response to him was: Who are you beholden to? Your colleagues at Yale and Columbia or the people who work and study at N.Y.U.?

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Boghossian.

PAUL BOGHOSSIAN: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems to me that there’s huge pressure from the other side. The N.Y.U. administration has a number of prominent Democratic Party members or affiliates in it, and there’s been a huge pressure from the political side to do the knee-jerk thing and recognize the union —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting you mention that, because isn’t Cheryl Mills, who we know as President Clinton’s attorney, represented him against impeachment by Congress, isn’t she fighting you, Michael?

MICHAEL PALM: There are several Clinton administration refugees in the N.Y.U. administration, and that only makes it more disappointing that they are hiding behind the Bush administration and blowing with the political winds.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have ten seconds. Are you going back to work on Monday? That’s the showdown date.

MICHAEL PALM: Absolutely not. I’m going back to work when we sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a second contract with N.Y.U.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. Michael Palm, Chair of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, G.S.O.C., at N.Y.U., New York University, and Professor Paul Boghossian, in the Philosophy Department at New York University.

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