Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Strike at New York University

Some of you might have heard about the graduate assistant strike at New York University. It's been going on for three weeks now, longer than I think most people expected. It's been an inconvenience: my one class has bounced from location to location, meeting at a coffee shop one week, then in a theater space (the rent for which my professor paid) the next. But, it's not really more inconvenient than getting anywhere else in New York City, so I don't really mind.

To be honest, I don't know too much about the strike, and it seems that many of my classmates (who aren't GAs or TAs, teacher assistants) don't know either. But everyone is either for or against the strike. I've heard some grumblings in class, and after three weeks, quite a number of people are tired of not knowing where their next class will be held.

I decided it was time to educate myself on the strike.

The NYU administration's response can be found at http://www.nyu.edu/public.affairs/gata/. Here is a passage from a FAQ the administration put together about NYU's GAs:

The financial aid package is worth some $50,000 dollars per year for doctoral students carrying a full course load, including:

  • a full tuition scholarship (the value of which for most students ranges from $25,183-$33,880 per year)
  • a minimum stipend of $19,000/year for doctoral students ($14,000 for masters students)
  • 100% payment by NYU of the premiums for the student health insurance plan for each GA (approximately $2,000)

    (For fully-supported graduate students, this same financial aid package applies even in those semesters in which graduate students do not have assistantship duties).

    On average, a graduate assistant is expected to spend about 20 hours per week during a 30-week year satisfying the requirements of his or her assistantship, typically through teaching or research related to his or her degree.

  • The union's Web site is http://www.2110uaw.org/gsoc/. (The GAs are part of United Auto Workers Local 2110.) What does the union have to say? Here is a passage from their Web site:
  • Economic Package: NYU suggested pay increases of $1000 for the first three years of the contract, followed by four years of 2 per cent increases (a significant reduction from the current 4 per cent increases enjoyed under the current contract, in the case that your stipend is above the minimum). The administration's offer fails to address many other concerns that are important to GSOCers [Graduate Student Organizing Committee], like housing, child care, job security, and overtime protections.
  • Healthcare: While there would be no premium costs for individual health care, NYU would be allowed to reduce benefits over the life of the agreement. Moreover, their offer does not include any of the improvements that our members asked for in our bargaining survey, like dental and vision coverage.
  • So now I know a little bit more about the strike. But mucking around online, one might come across media coverage like this New York Daily News op-ed:
    New York University's graduate assistants are learning a valuable life lesson: You don't always get want you want. ... For 20 hours a week of classroom-related work, they get at least a $19,000 stipend with guaranteed raises, free tuition and free health insurance. They get the money and benefits even for semesters when they don't teach. That's a good deal. And NYU has committed to maintaining it. What the university will not put up with is further disruption of classes for undergraduates, who pay $31,000 a year in tuition alone.
    What bothers me about the op-ed is that the writer basically rewrote the administration's press release. Is the situation really that simple?

    But even the New York Times glosses over the reasons for the strike. A Nov. 1 article states, "The university said that some of the grievances the union had filed interfered with academic decision-making. The union denied that it had encroached on N.Y.U.'s academic rights and rejected the offer."

    A Nov. 29 Times article says, "N.Y.U., which was the first private university to be told to allow the unionization of graduate students, in 2000, said the union had tried to interfere with setting academic policy. It said it would continue to recognize a union only if it would forgo grievances. The union said the university exaggerated the impact of the grievances filed."

    Neither Times article tells me what the grievances filed were. Instead of delving into the exact claims made by each side, it's as if the writer acknowledges that no one party is right and that it boils down to a case of he said, she said.

    It's possible the writer talked to a number of representatives on both sides and that the article was edited for length. But then, how are the interests of the reader served? If I'd wanted a summary, I'd read a story off a wire service.

    What I'd like to see is an article that breaks down the numbers. NYU thinks the GAs are paid a fair amount, and the GAs think what they received as the result of negotiating as a union got them a living wage.

    My own quick search reveals that, according to the NYU Office of Financial Aid, grad students living on or off campus can expect to pay $22,934 in living expenses alone (room and board, etc.). (Students living with their parents get a reprieve from New York City's high rents -- the estimated cost of their living expenses is $8,214.) So even though a GA does not have to pay tuition nor health insurance premiums, the minimum stipend he or she might receive still barely covers the cost of living in New York City.

    One might argue that all students should expect to take out loans, whether or not they work. GAs do teach classes, however, classes that count equally toward students' degrees and for which students pay full tuition. The university saves money by having GAs teach classes instead of hiring more tenured professors, who are obviously paid a lot more.

    Those are just my initial thoughts on the strike. Maybe with more reading, my sentiments will change.

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