It's Not Just Academic: Union Rights On Campus

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The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace, edited by Monika Krause, Mary Nolan, Michael Palm and Andrew Ross, Temple University Press, $25.95.

When Jesse Jackson, City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney attempted in 2005 to enter New York University's main library to present NYU President John Sexton with a petition of support for graduate instructors on strike, they were unceremoniously denied access.

This happened to me too, though my motives for entering the towering edifice that is Bobst Library were much more prosaic. (I was looking for a bathroom.) But the fact that three prominent civic leaders, plus one fellow academic – I was an adjunct professor at Hunter College at the time – were barred from entering a building dedicated to open inquiry and the public good not only says something about the priorities of the institution, but also indicates a disturbing trend in the relationship between universities and the public. Universities – which are granted tax-exempt status due to their supposed dedication to the public good – are increasingly behaving like businesses, bent on accumulating grants, real estate and prestige, erecting barriers to access by the greater community in the process.

“The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace” addresses the 2005 NYU graduate student strike while telling a much larger and more disturbing story about how the NYU administration’s reaction to unionization symbolizes the increasing corporatization of universities across the country. This quite readable, accessible volume – a collection of essays by authors such as NYC Central Labor Council executive director Ed Ott, Columbia University assistant professor of history Natasha Lightfoot, and Gordon Lafer, associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Research and Education Center – should serve to spur discussion about the latter-day role of universities, and whether this role diverges from what citizens or the government expect.

The book is divided into three sections, with the first, “Corporate University,” containing the information which will be most interesting to a non-academic audience. It chronicles how NYU’s increasing reliance upon adjunct (meaning part-time, non-tenure track) professors mirrors the increasing casualization of labor in American industry. These essays demonstrate how the NYU trustees work almost exclusively in the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector of the economy, and how this composition profoundly affects the university's character—and reflects the growing financial-sector focus of the economy in general. And finally, this part shows how NYU is increasingly absorbing public space and transforming Greenwich Village – once the paradigmatic mixed-use neighborhood – into a high-priced, heavily surveilled playground for superstar academics and students (not to mention assorted actors, bankers, and other rich folks), exemplifying a process of gentrification that is being carried out in urban spaces across the country.

That President Sexton fired graduate students who participated in the strike, tapped into faculty members' communications with students and graduate employees, and treated community support with disdain should surprise no one after learning about the business mindset of the institution he leads. The book’s second section chronicles how the strike itself was born through an act of the Bush administration. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that NYU’s teaching assistants – the graduate students who actually grade the papers, answer student questions, and teach discussion sections – were employees who could lawfully join unions. Soon thereafter, graduate students overwhelmingly voted for union representation and, after a strike threat, signed a contract with NYU.

Relative labor peace reigned in Washington Square until 2004, when the NLRB, now populated with Bush appointees, reversed itself and claimed that TAs at private universities were not actually employees and therefore did not have protection under the National Labor Relations Act. This decision did not necessitate that NYU withdraw recognition of the union, but in 2005 the university nonetheless chose to disregard the wishes of a majority of its graduate students, and refused to negotiate with the union. In justifying this action, the administration cited worries that unions would attempt to interfere with academic decisions (despite the union's explicit offer to eschew such involvement) and doubts that the United Auto Workers, the union the graduate students chose to represent them, could represent intellectual workers adequately (although UAW represents white-collar workers across the country). But as the first part of the book clearly demonstrates, the underlying motivation for Sexton’s resistance lay in his administration’s growing understanding of itself as corporate management. Why would Sexton, who was centralizing decision-making within the Office of the President, allow a democratically constituted and administered group like a union to threaten his unitary theory of the executive?

In the face of such resistance, the union was defeated and never regained recognition, although an organizing committee still struggles to garner support. The third section of “The University Against Itself” offers a frank discussion of why the union lost, focusing on missed opportunities to engage undergraduates who never quite understood why their TAs didn't come to work for a few weeks, students in the natural sciences who never quite understood why they should join the auto workers' union, and an urban community that never quite understood why privileged professors-in-training needed a union. But it is in its discussion of new tactics for the next campaign where the book falters. For although it discusses the possibility of forming new alliances and engaging in a “corporate campaign” targeting the financial interests held by NYU trustees, these university-centered solutions do not address the wider trends of corporatization so thoroughly documented in the first part of the book.

If graduate student unions are ever to gain a foothold at private universities, then public policies (such as a revivification of U.S. labor law) must force administrators like Sexton to acknowledge the academy's obligation to the workers it employs and the community in which it resides. One flaw of this book, however, is that it stints on specific suggestions about what is to be done. The Massachusetts state legislature has begun to discuss whether to tax the endowments of in-state universities with endowments over $1 billion. (NYU’s endowment was $1.5 billion in 2005.) With 50 institutions, together enrolling fewer than 2 percent of the nation's students, now holding more than half the money in college and university endowments nationwide, the implementation of such policies might quell the hunger of universities such as NYU for accumulation of money and land. Furthermore, such changes might impress upon the administrations of affected universities that they have an obligation, not simply to their trustees and funders, but to the workers without whom they could not function.

– Jason Kosnoski

Jason Kosnoski is an assistant professor of political science at University of Michigan-Flint. He received his doctorate in political science from The New School and worked as an adjunct professor at Hunter College, Baruch College and Eugene Lang College.

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