Why do you have to be a strike-breaker, is it a lesson that I never knew?
November 30, 2005 2:37 PM   Subscribe

NYU President John Sexton warns striking grad students that they must resume teaching or lose their benefits. After weeks of marching outside Bobst library and refusing to teach classes, NYU grad students have been sent a letter from President John Sexton, warning them that any TA who does not return to work next week will lose their stipends and eligibility to teach next semester. Until recently, NYU was the only private school that allowed graduate teaching assistants to unionize, following a 2000 NLRB decision, which was subsequently reversed. NYU claims that it has negotiated in good faith and that the union's demands would limit decision making that should remain in the hands of academics, while the grad students argue that they cannot trust NYU's admistration to take care of them without unionization (and representation by the UAW). Meanwhile, many undergrads paying tuition upwards of 50K/year will have to retake classes or opt for pass/fail. Do you sympathize with highly educated American grad students who receive free tuition, health insurance, and stipends in exchange for modest teaching duties (when many other students depend on student loans), especially compared the with 19th century coal miners, third-world factory workers, and modern-day wage slaves we normally associate with unions and strikes?
posted by banishedimmortal (98 comments total)
As an NYU grad who attended during the NLRB fiasco, I say wholeheartedly that I do not feel the grad student's pain.
posted by Captaintripps at 2:42 PM on November 30, 2005

I was an undergrad at the time.
posted by Captaintripps at 2:42 PM on November 30, 2005

Very interesting post, but I'm not sure I understand the point of your editorializing at the end there, bannishedimmortal. Are you suggesting that the only people who can legitimately strike are the people in the absolute worst of economic and physical situations? What about teachers who strike for fair pay?

To the extent that the university has failed to recruit and retain a satisfied workforce, the university should bear the responsibility for the impact of the strikes on undergrads, and should compensate undergrads appropriately. If this proves too much of a burden to the university, it should improve its relations with the TAs or hire scabs and endure the wrath of labor. Why undergrads (and their paying parents) endure these kinds of conditions without uproar is beyond me.
posted by gurple at 2:43 PM on November 30, 2005

(btw, Captaintripps, that's not a dig at you or yours... I endured TA strikes during my undergrad years without putting up a fuss, too)
posted by gurple at 2:46 PM on November 30, 2005

Just out of curiosity, how many developed nations use 'matriculation' or whatever term for paying the tuition of university students? It's been talked about by politicians in Canada, and I knew an Australian who went through school this way, but I never heard this discussed in the U.S.
posted by Kickstart70 at 2:46 PM on November 30, 2005

I was an NYU undergrad during 2000 who fully supported the GA's right to strike. I think once a contract is in place, subsequent contracts should be relatively easy to negotiate. And don't feel bad for current undergrads - they're not forced to retake any classes, but it gives the poorer-performing ones a free doover.

Sexton's a good guy, but he's carrying water for the Ivies that NYU wants to be considered with. (I remember the "NYU: the New Ivy" t-shirts that were given out my senior year.)
posted by sachinag at 2:54 PM on November 30, 2005

Gurple, I realize that the end was a bit of an editorial, but I didn't mean it to be one-sided. I mean to ask, given the disruption it is causing to undergraduate students, do you think that the GSA's complaints and demonization of the administration are justified and worth the effect on the community? I personally think that unions are a necessary counter-balance to capitalist exploitation of workers, but is this really one of those situation? As an NYU student who is paying for his education entirely with student loans, and receives no stipend, I must admit my bias, but then, I am trying to keep an open mind about it, hence this post.
posted by banishedimmortal at 2:56 PM on November 30, 2005

I don't sympathize with the grad students at all. While unionization might have been necessary for factory workers who had very little choice but to work at sweatshops to feed themselves and their family I don't see why the same protection is necessary for graduate students who chose to go to school. If the graduate students were truly top notch, they could've been able to pick among multiple schools for the best stipend package.
posted by gyc at 2:58 PM on November 30, 2005

And BTW, it seems to me that the main sticking point is that the UAW wants the power to negotiate certain points about who can teach what classes, etc. and also wants a "closed-shop" so that GTAs are required to join the union. This NYU and Sexton refuse to do, but they seem to have been quite generous with all other benefits.
As for how the undergrads actually feel, I'm sure there's some who are thrilled to be able to blow off class or get a pass/fail, but there are many who actually want to get their education dollar's worth.
posted by banishedimmortal at 2:58 PM on November 30, 2005

Man, when I was a grad student (not at NYU), it wasn't a 'modest' teaching load. It was half-time (6 credit hours) or more by the university's definition, and one semester I taught two DIFFERENT 5-credit hour undergraduate German courses. That was 10 hours in front of classes plus preparation and grading. Dividing my stipend by my work hours, I did not make much above minimum wage.
posted by tippiedog at 2:59 PM on November 30, 2005

Why the UAW? That seems a rather od union to be involved in education.
As for the strike, if what NYU says is true, and the UAW was involving themselves directly in academic affairs, then I think NYU is right in rejecting a new contract.
posted by madajb at 3:00 PM on November 30, 2005

What gurple said, pretty much. My experience as a grad. student was pretty typical--the teaching load wasn't bad, but the "stipend" I got was not enough to live on. FWIW, it seems to me that getting a PhD in the humanities generally requires a trust fund/parental hand-outs most of the time. We did get health insurance eventually, but you'd think the university in question was going to go broke for all the grousing they did about it.

Everyone is at fault, frankly. Universities get cheap teachers in the form of graduate students, and to do so they offer more PhD slots than are practical (e.g., based on the number of decent job openings in a given year). Undergraduates tend to get motivated but under-qualified TA's (I know I was guilty of both sins). Professors will say nice things about improving the lot of grad. students, but when push comes to shove won't lift a finger or take any risks to help them (and I can't blame them. The whole system is so grueling and soul-crushing that if you do manage to get a job, you have no desire to rock the boat ever again). Parents paying undergrad tuition are probably more interested in name-recognition of their kids' diploma rather than what they actually learn, or who actually teaches them.

Meh. It's a mess. It would be nice if it wasn't feast or famine, but there really isn't much of a middle ground. And no, I feel no sympathy for the graduate students involved, but I do think universities should do a much better job of letting them know about the reality of the academic job situtation, i.e., there ain't none.

I do miss the parties though. And on a good day, few things are more satisfying than teaching college students. Then there are the bad days. . . .
posted by bardic at 3:02 PM on November 30, 2005

As a PhD student at Northwestern, another private university with billions in the bank, I sympathize. Not because they're grad students too, but because I've seen the abuse meted out by university administrations firsthand. My opinion at this point is that many (elite private American, I can't speak to others, though the public university I went to as an undergrad was, I hear, somewhat better) universities are huge scams, sucking in billions of tax/foundation dollars that are mostly wasted. When you read about so-and-so university professor pulling in a grant for X million dollars to do such-and-such, just divide by two, because the university takes about 50% (some places less, some more, 50% being about typical from what I've seen) right off the top for "overhead" (really, can it cost that much to keep the lights on?). And it's even worse for the portions of grants that are earmarked for funding graduate students who are research assistants (i.e., the ones who work *long* hours doing the actual work on the ground). In that case, the university may charge the fed something like $70k/year to "support" a student who is taking no classes. Of that 70k, about $16k actually gets to the grad student for living on. What they do is count it (for tax purposes, etc) as about $22k in income, but then take a bunch back for crappy health insurance. For the grad students with children, the university health plan here costs more than they pay you in a year.

Personally, I'd join a union in a heartbeat.
posted by rbs at 3:04 PM on November 30, 2005

If the graduate students were truly top notch, they could've been able to pick among multiple schools for the best stipend package.

Unless the schools colluded to keep grad pay low...
posted by pracowity at 3:06 PM on November 30, 2005

Oh, and I forgot to mention, the health plan that Northwestern (and most other universities do the same, from what I can tell) gives paid grad students access to is NOT the same one that regular employees get access to. It has fewer benefits and costs WAY more. The best explanation I've been able to come up with is that if they did treat us as employees for health care purposes, it's one more argument in our favor to force collective bargaining on them.
posted by rbs at 3:08 PM on November 30, 2005

rbs: it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year just to keep the lights on in a large building, and even more for AC. Add in routine maintenance, staff, infrastructure, the cost of the building (millions) and there's your overhead. Not saying there's no waste, but it costs a lot of money to run a university.
posted by zanni at 3:12 PM on November 30, 2005

rbs is correct re: crappy health plans for graduate students (speaking as someone who was luckily never sick and didn't have kids while at U. of Virginia). Being a TA/graduate instructor is, to put it nicely, total limbo. Chances are you're never going to make it rich, so the uni's in question have little reason to make you like them. Anything that smacks of you being a university employee is genteely pooh-poohed away as being "beneath" your pristine intellect. This is a ploy that keeps the TA's feeling special but in reality, treated like shit.

And if any of my former students are reading this--yes, I was hung over that day when I said I wasn't.
posted by bardic at 3:21 PM on November 30, 2005

modest teaching duties

Do you know what modest means in practice? I suspect you don't. Many grad students (though not all) have as high or a higher teaching load than professors, at a tiny fraction of the salary. I don't, and that's in part because I'm in a union that has negotiated workload protection.

American grad students who receive free tuition, health insurance, and stipends

Health insurance is not at all guaranteed at non-unionized schools. At my school, there was no health insurance before the grad students unionized, and negotiated it.

(when many other students depend on student loans)

As far as I can tell, the logic here is "grad students have it better than we do, so they shouldn't try to improve what they have." The problem isn't that grad students have it "good", at least from someone's perspective. It's that other kinds of students (I noticed the original poster is a law student) don't have it good - it's the system of paying for law/med school that's broken, and the proper response probably isn't to be unsympathetic to grad students.
posted by advil at 3:24 PM on November 30, 2005

Apparently one's right to collective bargaining is dependent on grades according to GYA. As a former TA (and current labor lawyer) I have to say that the TA makes very little money and is doing work, period. They should have the right.

As for why pick the UAW? Big strike fund. But Teamsters are much better. The sympathy strike quickly cripples a university.

Remember, these are very wasteful institutions, paid for by government, in the long run. They should clean up their act.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:27 PM on November 30, 2005

The major flaw in the "If the grad students were truly top notch, they couldn've been able to pick among multiple schools for the best stipend package" argument is that lesser schools make sweeter financial offers to top grad students than top schools do. So if you're a top applicant and you base your decision on who offers you the most money, you'll probably go to the worst school for your field.
posted by u2604ab at 3:27 PM on November 30, 2005

the health plan that Northwestern gives paid grad students access to is NOT the same one that regular employees get access to.

Uh, I'm totally supportive of unions, but seriously: as a "regular" employee of a university, where TAs make more per hour than the technicians I work with every day, I'm not sure that's a fair comparison. Different unions altogether, and I'm not sure grad students really want to slide into that pay scale.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:32 PM on November 30, 2005

Grad school is not school. Its the first step in a long carear which requires an awesome amount of training. If a university wants the privilege of academic influence, it must train future members of the academic community, and it must pay them a living wage.

Need I mention that non-American grad students are only allowed to work for the university? Sometimes needing to support a whole family on the TA salary, as their spouce is also not allowed to work.

NYU will be shooting itself in the foot if it actually starts giving TAs the boot. To give RAs the boot is even more unworkable as it will devastate the universities labs & whipe out its most influential graduates, although I expect most RAs are actually still working, but pretending to strike, as RAs are generally working on their thesis.

One things which is needed is a wiki for comparison of various grad schools. Universities will take note as their quality of incomming students starts declining.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:35 PM on November 30, 2005

Advil, I would have more sympathy for the NYU graduate students if I felt that they really were getting an unfair deal, or being exploited. From my perspective, however, at least at NYU, they are getting a pretty good benefits package from a reasonable administration, which only objects to allowing an auto-worker's union to be involved in the grievance process, and thus to interfere with decisions about who can teach what classes, etc.
I think this is especially important when this has the effect of depriving undergraduate students of the education they deserve. Far from this being the only option, it seems to me that graduate students generally have great freedom about whether or not they go to grad school, and which school they ultimately decide to attend, and they can make these choices based on benefits offered. Therefore, they are in a very different way than other kinds of workers.
posted by banishedimmortal at 3:36 PM on November 30, 2005

Hildegarde: There's something wrong when I pay more for health insurance (and less inclusive coverage, at that) than the chancellor of the university.
posted by rbs at 3:38 PM on November 30, 2005

I'm torn. On the one hand, I am a Ph.D. student in the humanities who has an extremely generous research fellowship, a greatly reduced teaching load, and as gyc (misguidely, I think) stated, was able to choose from multiple competitive offers. On the other hand, living this lavish Fellow lifestyle, I'm barely able to make ends meet, and if I had children, forget about it. I'm now in my sixth year of college and I am making less money per hour than I made in my first year summer internship as an IT consultant, let alone the professional years between. At the same time I see first-hand the way the university system works to exploit graduate student labor, including my own since I'm contractually not allowed to draw any work-related income while on Fellowship. I work for a benefit package, which might be $50,000 a year once tuition, fringe, and insurance are included. For someone who will have been in college ten years when he graduates, that is ridiculous.

I, however, am here by choice, and despite the fact that I make a fraction of what I made as a professional, I would not trade my lifestyle for anything. I get paid little, but my time is almost entirely my own. Even if I had to teach, which I will for a year, I can't imagine a better way to spend my time. So, it's totally worth it to be exploited by a university that uses grad students to teach courses rather than hire more tenure-line professors. I will, after all, be one of those professors someday, and my two-course a year teaching load, and my eventual six figure income will depend on most of my teaching work be done by grad students who have no legal recourse, except to unionize...which makes little difference anyway. Believe me, I turned down every grad student union offer I got.

As to how I feel about the pay and working conditions of lecturers -- that's another story entirely.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2005

Uh, "overhead costs" are supplied directly by the funding agency on top of the amount of the grant. If the overhead is 50%, and the investigator gets a $1 million grant, the institute gets an extra $500k additionally. Institutions negotiate directly with the federal government for these overhead charges -- it has little to do with the researcher.

Overhead costs don't just pay for lights. They pay for "common services" such as dishwashing, expensive shared apparatus, shared statasticians and informatics, and many other "core facilities" that make each individual investigator's life much easier.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 3:51 PM on November 30, 2005

I am not very supportive of unionization of white-collar jobs but I do take issue with the statement that the students receive FREE anything. They do a job and the compensation is non-traditional in that it includes schooling and eventually possibly a degree, but it's a job and they are no more or less deserving of employment benefits than any other worker.
posted by phearlez at 3:54 PM on November 30, 2005

As for UAW "interference" please read the post. NYU claims the UAW wants to interfere. Simple media strategy is to make it look like meddling outsiders are responsible. Somehow I find the image of some cigar-chomping welder demanding that TA schedules follow some plan ridiculous. More likely the TA's are at the core of that question, not the UAW.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:00 PM on November 30, 2005

banishedimmortal, Its a job which should pay a living wage, and should not pay anything. Asking young scientists to pay for the privilege of doing their research will litterally destroy American high tech industries, as they will simply all become lawyers or something instead. Smart people don't inhernetly go into smart people jobs, society needs to keep saleries respectable, or ideally high.

Unlike doctors, scientists can't count on high saleries after they graduate. So you can't ask grad students to take out more loans either. BTW, Lawyers can't count on high saleries either, but we'd actually like to discourage them. ;)

Also, people don't usually have much choice in which graduate school they attend, maybe about two choices. Such decissions are often made based on pay, unless one of the schools is clearly much better.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:01 PM on November 30, 2005

Anything restricting the number of trained personnel at any give time is likely to produce an increase of cost, as a relative scaricity of trained people is going to make hiring cost increase (while relative abundance is likely to induce a cost decrease) ; further reducing (by means of tuition costs and other costs) the pool of people having access to advanced education isn't going to make personnel cost decrease, but on the contrary is likely to increase it.

Indeed we could consider the outsourcing of many high skill jobs to indian or russian equivalents as evidence suggesting a partial failure of the education system, both privatized and public, in the task of producing reasonably expensive workforce.

If we exclude the vulture companies seeking profit primarily by reducing workforce cost, we are left with other companies finding that highly educated local personnel demand more money then out of country equivalents , also because of tuition cost, mortgage cost and generally higher pay level expectancy.

Obviously one private company/university can't ask State for more funds to keep cost of education of personnel low, because private must deal with their troubles on their own. As the good educating personnel is likely to leave to better paid positions offering also better treatement, the outlook for workforce education doesn't look good as the least proficient educators are the ones most likely to accept lower pay jobs.

I wouldn't be surprised to see private university begging for money with all possible excuses including being religious or religion conscious, thus getting some funds from the fundies...they have very few others way as taxpayer are not willing to pay for private failures, as that is the same as giving an incentive for futher failures.

Obviously any State sponsorship of private university should be condemend as welfare, doing more damage to private ventures then good and shifting costs on taxpayers.
posted by elpapacito at 4:09 PM on November 30, 2005

Can grad students just choose to pay for their educations and not teach, like undergrads do?
posted by smackfu at 4:19 PM on November 30, 2005

Calling the teaching duties of a TA "Modest" is idiotic. They're taking classes and working their asses off. When you figure in the time they spend grading and teaching (which they get paid for) and the time they spend the classes they're taking (which they pay for out of the money they are paid to teach) you end up with a really shitty wage, for a hell of a lot of work, all for the standard of living of a Wal-Mrt employee.
posted by delmoi at 4:20 PM on November 30, 2005

Speaking as a former grad student, I have to say that the "pay" in stipends, etc, is usually crap, if not worse. Remember that it's not just tuition that grad students have to pay for, it's all the stuff all those undergrads are getting Mom and Dad (or Sallie Mae) to pay for -- food, a place to live, etc. The program I was in hadn't raised the stipend or the tuition credit in 25 years by the time I got there, so we all had to have full time jobs apart from the full-time job of being a grad student and the other full-time job of being teachers. Current academic practices are incredibly exploitative, and it doesn't get better after graduation -- unless one is lucky enough to get a tenure-track professorship, one is stuck making a living as an adjunct, where one needs to hold positions at 3-5 insititutions just to make a living wage.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:23 PM on November 30, 2005

And no, I feel no sympathy for the graduate students involved

This is why the labor movement in America is fucked—everybody finds some reason the other guy doesn't deserve whatever they're after. "What about me? I'm the one who's really suffering! That guy's downright privileged!" And the rich and powerful exploit us all and laugh.

Also, what delmoi and eustacescrubb said.
posted by languagehat at 4:44 PM on November 30, 2005

Best wishes to everyone over at gsoc, at what has been a long and difficult strike. Union members at places like these face many difficulties--one being the high turnover of graduate students/employees, another being the belief that unions are just not appropriate for academics or, sometimes, for anyone other than those working on factory floors. There's a belief that joining one is a surrender of intellectual independence or is otherwise undignified: that it's unseemly.

But, as universities come under pressure to outsource teaching to grad students, adjuncts, and non-tenure track and distance education faculty of various descriptions, it should become clear that unions of graduate students and faculty members are needed to countervail the forces which, believe me, will not respect the ivy-clad traditions of higher education, and which value instead big grant-winners and "superstar" academics who are increasingly removed from the undergrad classroom. Research assistants in the sciences benefit too from unionization, as it affects benefits, grievance procedures, and university policies with regard to child care, immigration, and other workplace issues.

In short, if one believes in the utility of unions for other people, there's no reason to reject them in one's own instance. If you feel it should be the norm for employees to form unions to represent their interests, there's no reason that those working in the academy should be an exception to this rule, imho.

Disclosure: I learned the other day that the president of the union at NYU is a former student of mine! (Hooray!)
posted by washburn at 4:48 PM on November 30, 2005

> When you figure in the time they spend grading and teaching (which they get
> paid for) and the time they spend the classes they're taking (which they pay for out
> of the money they are paid to teach) you end up with a really shitty wage

But you don't get to figure in the time they spend in the classes they take as if it were time on the job, because it isn't time on the job. It's a leisure-time activity, an activity of choice like gardening or crocheting or watching TV. When I was a graduate student I made a higher hourly wage than a Walmart worker, and that was my wage -- a decent one. I was poor because being a TA is only a part-time job.

Oh, and it's extremely rare for part-time workers to get any benefits.

> unless one is lucky enough to get a tenure-track professorship, one
> is stuck making a living as an adjunct, where one needs to hold positions
> at 3-5 insititutions just to make a living wage.

Sounds like academia is a dumb choice of career then--unless there are other compensations? I think there are. They include all the things that made me want to be a grad student rather than a Walmart worker, and for people to know that I was a grad student rather than a Walmart worker. But if there are other compensations, they need to be assigned a financial value and included in the calculations. Otherwise they remain in the category of unacknowledged privilege, like being white.
posted by jfuller at 4:54 PM on November 30, 2005

Just to be clear: certainly graduate students should have the right to form unions. Why on earth not? And it should be imteresting to see NYU go the way of GM.
posted by jfuller at 4:59 PM on November 30, 2005

It should be interesting to see jfuller try and redeem his cultural capital at Wal-Mart.
posted by washburn at 5:09 PM on November 30, 2005

jfuller, I agree with you. I don't regret the time I spent in graduate school, but looking back, I can't believe how cynical the professors and administrators in my department had to be if they thought about the situation for one second. I don't think grad. students expect to eat out every night and drive a new car, but many top humanities programs are designed to create more degrees than the market can handle. Everybody know this, eventually, and I'd imagine many professors would defend the venality of their very own departments by romanticizing the life of the mind. It is exciting, it is awesome to be surrounded by so many intelligent people, but it's disgusting how very few of the people with the power to make some changes are willing to do anything about it. It took me a while to "unlearn" much of my cynicism regarding academics in general, and some of it will always remain. Then again, I got to spend a few years doing nothing but read books, which has many of its own rewards.

Anecdotally, I think grad students get a lot of crap deservedly. They tend to be privileged fucks who like to tell everyone else how to live their lives. But two wrongs don't make a right, and many universities are fooling themselves if they think the current situation is sustainable.
posted by bardic at 5:13 PM on November 30, 2005

They are making 18000 a year in New York City which is about 10000 a year anywhere else. They are working hard enough that they cannot have another job.
On the other hand, my graduate student experience did not include health care benefits and had a much lower wage in a near equally expensive city -- and Reagan decided we were a group to target for higher taxes. Would I have struck if it were possible then? Yeah.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:18 PM on November 30, 2005

As to the "why UAW" argument: the UAW local in NYC is the union for employees at the Village Voice, the ACLU, the Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Also, this would be the second contract with GSOC - apparently they agreed to a contract in 2002 after the original NLRB ruling. My apologies.
posted by sachinag at 5:33 PM on November 30, 2005

I see this as a market question, rather than one of social justice. I've always been puzzled by the idea that unions are inherently anti-capitalist. In my mind, unionization is a legitimate market strategy to bargain for better wages. It is simply a bargaining method for getting the most you can out of the employment contract, like anyone tries to get out of any business contract. Unions are ultimately subject to the same market forces as any other business activity. If the union's demands are such that the shareholders will still be able to make a reasonable profit, they will probably relent if the union is able to hold the picket line. If the union demands are unreasonable, they have little to no chance of success, since the company could not afford it, or simply that there are better investment opportunities elsewhere. Yes, I know that unionization has its historic roots in Marxism and the left, but I don't see it as inherently leftist.

Thus, I don't care if the unionizers are coal miners, baseball players or grad students: they have the right to pursue as much profit as they think they can wring out of their contracts. Their employers are generally trying to do the same. NYU isn't even a public institution. If the grad students' demands are unreasonable, then someone will suffer, mostly likely them. If the demands are reasonable, then the university is making a mistake by not accepting them, unless they can break the strike. In this case, I would mostly judge the parties' actions in terms of their wisdom rather than their virtue.
posted by Edgewise at 5:59 PM on November 30, 2005

Life of the grad student sucks. I knew it coming in, or should have known it, and yes, there are a few non-economic benefits, and that's why we do it. It's the ultimate apprentice system, and I'd like to be treated better, but I'm willing to resign myself to my fate.

The real grievance that all grad students should have is that elite schools admit too many grad students, and then use them to teach classes and do research, thereby eliminating our future jobs. This violates the implied social contract of the apprenticeship system, and really must be stopped. This is a problem that really DOES require a collective action solution, but any organizing must span beyond a single school to a large range.

For that, I'd be willing to strike.
posted by allan at 6:13 PM on November 30, 2005

Dude! I am an NYU sophomore now, and you scooped me on this, banishedimmortal! I didn't think MeFites would be interested. Are you also at NYU now?

That synchronicity aside, I have a few nits to pick with your statement that "many undergrads paying tuition upwards of 50K/year will have to retake classes or opt for pass/fail."

You can get total fees to $45k if you finagle it a little bit, but not $50k in any case. And you're saying we're paying that much for tuition alone, when really tuition alone is $32k. Tuition and books is about $32.5k/year.

But my bigger problem is with your statement that we'll have to retake classes or go pass/fail. That's just not the case. We have those options -- in classes that are affected by the strike; we apply for the options, and the applications are reviewed, and the review is apparently tough to pass. We are not being forced to do redos or pass/fail in any case. Even classes taught entirely by TAs (beginning levels of language, for example) are still going to count if you want them to count.

And Ironmouth: "NYU claims the UAW wants to interfere." It does; it has. There's a case of an assistant who was not a GA -- and who had his doctorate, so who theoretically should be providing better instruction than grad students -- whom the GAs forced to leave because he was not a GA. That is not acting in the undergrads' best interest.

dances_with_sneetches, they're making $19k a year. And while GAs are kiiiiinda teeeechnically not suppossssed to have another job, almost all of mine do. And even the not-supposed-to part doesn't cover paid freelance writing, which GAs in all the humanities do in droves.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:29 PM on November 30, 2005

19k a year?! And freelance writing?!
Oh my god, it's a whole generation of Donald Trumps!
posted by papakwanz at 6:34 PM on November 30, 2005

But you don't get to figure in the time they spend in the classes they take as if it were time on the job, because it isn't time on the job. It's a leisure-time activity, an activity of choice like gardening or crocheting or watching TV.

Uh... what?
When you're a grad student, going to class IS part of your job. If your graduate education was like gardening or watching TV, then you weren't really getting much out of it, apparently.
posted by papakwanz at 6:37 PM on November 30, 2005

Let me explain that last statement. It's part of your job because grad school isn't like undergrad, which has largely turned into 4 years of socializing to get a piece of paper to go work in a cubicle. Graduate courses are on the job training designed to get you into the academic world you will (hopefully) be participating in as a professor. It's about gaining the knowledge base and skills you'll use as an instructor, getting into conferences, writing publishable material, etc. Just because we enjoy doing it doesn't make it a hobby.
posted by papakwanz at 6:49 PM on November 30, 2005

papakwanz, I know it's not the best job in the world. I would add a "Duh," or a "No fucking shit," if I felt like being rude about it. I'm a student living (although not paying NYU on, nor supporting a family on) under $19k a year. Like, well under. Like, I made $600 this semester. And I fully intend to go the grad-student route afterward and I would be satisfied being a grad student at NYU.

The point is that although GAing sucks, it's temporary. That's its (figurative) definition. So you don't buy Starbucks every morning for seven years. My heart is not bleeding. On the NYU LJ community, someone did a breakdown of how to spend the $19k. It didn't look that bad. Sadly, I can't find the comment again because there's been way too much wank in the meantime, but $19k is, I think, a livable salary. Also, it did not come as a surprise to any GAs.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:12 PM on November 30, 2005

Real unions are around to fight real battles with real world consequences for their members and their families. I have no sympathy for their situation one bit.
posted by my sock puppet account at 7:20 PM on November 30, 2005

When banishedmortal says, "they are getting a pretty good benefits package," and booksandlibretti says that breaking down $19k doesn't look that bad, they should keep in mind that the only reason the grad students have this (apparently) sweet deal is because they unionized and got a contract. Their initial contract increased stipends by 40% on average. Which means that (if I've done my math correctly), they were getting $13,500 (plus no healthcare) in 2000? Which is total insanity in NYC, even accounting for inflation. If NYU considers such compensation reasonable, then it seems to me that the students have every reason to fear what would happen should the union go away.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:38 PM on November 30, 2005

Yeah, just remember that grad students and their families are not real. You just have to remind them of this every nowandagain.
posted by washburn at 7:51 PM on November 30, 2005

Yeah, just remember that grad students and their families are not real.

Grad student unions at major private university with an astronomical tuition does not compare to auto workers, construction workers, airline mechanics and other real unions. My heart goes out to layed off auto workers and mechanics, not people who choose to find themselves in situations in which the bad alternative still has damn good benefits.
posted by my sock puppet account at 8:13 PM on November 30, 2005

I was a grad student at NYU during the move to unionization, selection of UAW (which made sense as they represented teachers, skilled laborers, white collar professionals), the NLRB decision, etc.. I was there to do a job (which I did) and during that time I supported my peers right to organize for collective bargaining - just like other teachers, 19th century coal miners, third-world factory workers, and modern-day "wage slaves".

At the time, TAs, GAs, and RAs had no collective bargaining in terms of stipends or (a big issue at the time) health insurance. Asking if people sympathize with "highly educated American grad students" seems like you are suggesting only certain groups have the right to unionize (how about highly educated American teachers or engineers or...).

This wasn't even an issue of sympathy for me - I helped with the unionization effort at the time even though I had two fellowships - it was about whether laborers had the right to unionize.

Oh, and I liked gyc's comment: "If the grad students were truly top notch, they couldn've been able to pick among multiple schools for the best stipend package" - because grad students pick where they go for the best stipend package, not for who they want to work with or what the department is like.

Banished, you say: "From my perspective, however, at least at NYU, they are getting a pretty good benefits package from a reasonable administration, which only objects to allowing an auto-worker's union to be involved in the grievance process, and thus to interfere with decisions about who can teach what classes, etc." How do you think that came about? It certainly wasn't that way before the NLRB decision, and perhaps you should check out what the health insurance program was from 1996 - 1999. Also, check out what their bargaining position was during that time - there was no real negotiation on stipends and health insurance, which drove the move to unionize. The argument about "interfer[ing] with decisions about who can teach what classes" is an old one (about 6 years now) - but perhaps you can expound on it.

Banished, you also say "I think this is especially important when this has the effect of depriving undergraduate students of the education they deserve. Far from this being the only option, it seems to me that graduate students generally have great freedom about whether or not they go to grad school" - No grad student *wants* to strike, obviously. Just like no teacher would want to strike and deprive 3rd graders of the education they deserve. And teachers have great freedom, too. Come to think of it, undergraduates have great freedom about where they go. That's wild stuff.
posted by mahniart at 8:32 PM on November 30, 2005

I would respond substantially to sock puppet, but mahniart and unknowncommand have already done most of it for me.

I'll just reiterate what languagehat said above. This contest of "my misery is more worthy than yours" is bullshit, and is exactly what kills off any chance of truly changing the working environment for everyone in the country.
posted by papakwanz at 9:01 PM on November 30, 2005

On the NYU LJ community, someone did a breakdown of how to spend the $19k. It didn't look that bad. Sadly, I can't find the comment again because there's been way too much wank in the meantime, but $19k is, I think, a livable salary. Also, it did not come as a surprise to any GAs.

You know, you wouldn't think it looks bad, but of course, you're living a posh pampered doorman life at Water Street*. In case you haven't checked, apartments in New York are expensive if you don't want to live in Gravesend. That 19k a year gets knocked down pretty fast with taxes, rent, heat (whoo rising energy costs!), electric, phone, internet (quibble if you want, but necessary as a grad student), metrocard, groceries, etc. Then add professional organization memberships, conference travel, research money (much of which comes out-of-pocket when that sure-thing NSF dissertation improvement grant doesn't come through), and more. Sure, the NYU grad students, like other stipended grad students, certainly aren't starving, but the fact of the matter is that IF a university expects a student to rely solely on the stipend provided (which is stipulated by the stipend's conditions) THEN the university should provide a reasonable living wage, which 19k/year is not.

Like, I made $600 this semester

If you're at NYU, then you need to work harder. Student work-study wages were around the $9/hour mark when I was there, surely more now, so that translates to what, like six hours/week? Don't cry poverty without at least making an effort.

*inferred from the 10038 in your profile

posted by The Michael The at 9:35 PM on November 30, 2005

Ooh, snap. Internet detective! (That isn't supposed to be secret, by the way.)

I do live at Water Street, since my financial package includes allotments for school housing. Water Street is not a doorman building. I live in a studio with another girl, but the studio does have a high ceiling. Please do not tell me I am living "a posh pampered ... life" if you have never been past the lobby. Also, it's worth noting that these Water Street apartments are heavily subsidized by NYU, and that grad students have the opportunity to live in NYU buildings (although not in Water Street; they get to live closer to campus).

It's worth mentioning that most of the science departments and science GAs do not support the action at all. Aren't these the departments that are more likely to do expensive research projects?

Currently, I am taking 18 credits, involved in extracurriculars, dealing with health issues, and working 12 to 15 hours a week. You're right; I could be working harder. I could be out working instead of killing time at MeFi. But the thing is, you only get an hourly wage if you work at a position paid by the hour. My work-study job offers a stipend.

But wait. Why didn't I take a job that pays better and lets me work more hours, even if it's a job I am less qualified for and like a lot less? Because I don't need to. I'm not crying poverty. I'm demonstrating that as long as you don't buy unnecessary things -- and don't tell me most people don't -- and as long as you aren't trying to support a family, you don't actually need that much to get by if you're willing to be a little scroungey for a few years.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:17 PM on November 30, 2005

banishedimmortal: I mean to ask, given the disruption [the strike] is causing to undergraduate students, do you think that the GSA's complaints and demonization of the administration are justified and worth the effect on the community?

If it's causing that much disruption, surely that's proving the GSA's point -- that the Univ. is relying far too heavily on and taking for granted its grad. student labour, and the professoriat isn't picking up the slack.

In the last 20 or so years, NYU has tried to buy itself an academic reputation it hasn't traditionally had by head-hunting 'superstar' academics like Simon Schama, Niall Furgusson and John Guillory from other institutions, with the offer of high-quality, subsidized housing in the heart of Manhattan. To pay for this top-heavy, HR frivolousness, it then cuts costs in other areas -- e.g., by allocating much of the undergrad. teaching load to ridiculously underpaid student TAs. What's not to condemn about that?
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:46 PM on November 30, 2005

Just as a side note, my "why the UAW" question was not a dig or an argument, but a genuine question.
I was unaware that the UAW apparently represents teachers and other non auto-related groups.
posted by madajb at 11:20 PM on November 30, 2005

I certainly didn't take the "why the UAW" question as a dig - and I was unaware of all the groups the UAW represented before we started meeting with them.

Booksandlibretti, when I came to NYU as a Grad student, I was already married, and I had a dog. In fact, when I first came, I didn't even have my bachelor's done and I came on as staff, it was an odd arrangement. Student housing was not an option. Once I came on as a grad student under fellowship, I was working with peers, several of whom were married.

It doesn't matter what your personal situation is, it matters whether others have the right to organize for the right to collectively bargain. If you think that $19k is enough for you to live on OR $13k and whatever health benefits NYU chooses to give you in exchange for an undefined # of hours of work (in addition to your program requirements) OR $ / compensation whatever NYU chooses in the future to give you personally, that's a good thing. It's not a sign of greed or entitlement that others want to organize to have a collective say in their own compensation.

I got involved at the time not for my own benefit (because I did take heat within my own department for getting involved) - but for the principle and because of my friends. I wasn't even TAing or GAing, and the effects did not even come until later.

There are reasons why Science departments are against unionization - having to do with # of hours in the lab. But that # of hours in the lab argument being tied to compensation always seemed like 1) top down department pressure and 2) not honestly tied to labor. The work needed to get done - but did it have to be tied to a GA / RA job or just as part of the program? I certainly put a lot of hours in the lab (all nighters where I didn't see my wife) not under a GA or RA status. There may be concern that having student work on projects without $ compensation would result in more of a need to promote them to higher positions of authorship on papers. There are other departments that do "expensive research projects" outside of the Science department. That's why the Psych department / Center for Neural Science can afford a MRI in the basement.
posted by mahniart at 5:56 AM on December 1, 2005

It's worth mentioning that most of the science departments and science GAs do not support the action at all. Aren't these the departments that are more likely to do expensive research projects?

Two things. First, some technicality actually prevented most science grad students from joining the union (was it because they weren't considered workers? something like that... I'm trying to remember WSN stories from four years ago, so forgive me), so of course they wouldn't strike. Even if they could join the union, on average, they're making significantly more than humanities and social science TAs. At the grad school I'm at now, hard science grad students are the ones make about 7k more than the rest per year. That is a significant difference, one that I would argue puts then into the range of a living wage. Remember, these people don't want to be paid like lawyers. Just not like sweatshop laborers.

Second, you'd be surprised at how much money can be dumped into research. Travel is one of the big expenses, which can add up if you're spending six months in Galway poring over medieval Gaelic texts.

Please do not tell me I am living "a posh pampered ... life" if you have never been past the lobby. Also, it's worth noting that these Water Street apartments are heavily subsidized by NYU, and that grad students have the opportunity to live in NYU buildings (although not in Water Street; they get to live closer to campus).

See, here you're making assumptions. I have been past the lobby. Many times. I've had several good friends that lived there. People collect your mail there. There are security guards and sign-in procedures. So someone doesn't open the door for you, pardon my hyperbole. The ceilings are high indeed, and the rooms are quite spacious (yes, I've been in the studios) for New York apartments. It is a nice building. Your argument about subsidization is specious too. Water St. is currently $11,400/year. Over 9 months, that's $1266/month. For a studio. Factor in what both of you pay, and that's over $2500/month for a studio in total rent. On the open market, you can get a two bedroom in the financial district for that much, probably in a doorman building.

Bringing this back to the matter at hand, can a grad student afford $1266/month in rent? No. Not out of $1970/month (after taxes). The other graduate dorms? They're more affordable, sorta: Stuyvesant Town at $870/month is affordable, but only has space for 324 students and is same-sex occupancy only, so married couples are excluded; Wash. Sq. Village is next at $1115/month, which isn't really affordable.

-- and as long as you aren't trying to support a family, you don't actually need that much to get by if you're willing to be a little scroungey for a few years

The problem is that some people do need to support a family.
posted by The Michael The at 6:16 AM on December 1, 2005

Mahniart, is there anything to my "NYU science grad students can't join the union"? Or am I just making this up? Which I certainly could be...
posted by The Michael The at 6:22 AM on December 1, 2005

The Michael The,

Yes, there's something to that - don't make me lie, but I think it's that if you were an RA working off an external research grant (think NSF grant, etc.), you weren't covered by the UAW contract. It applied to CNS students as well.
posted by mahniart at 6:50 AM on December 1, 2005

Only grad students are so self important to believe they need a union and all its assorted benefits. I went to a small liberal arts school where, gasp, the professors actually loved to teach, get to know the students, and did all the grading, course planning, etc.

Such professors are usually much more lowly paid than their university counterparts and, for the most part, they didn't complain about it.

It's sad when when grad students who get paid to get a degree and get subsidized living in Manhattan bitch and moan amidst students and professional students who go into ridiculous debt at their same institutions. And, it's sad because at best you'd want grad students to sent an example -- an example that the academic life is one worth living and not worth unreasonably striking over and inconveniencing the very people (the tuition paying students) that make that life worthwhile.

It's been said before -- but a truly starving artist does not really care that she or he is starving. And that fact helps make them a true artist.

NYU Grad striking grad students suck. Just understand that all you are doing is driving up the $1200/wk. tuition costs for your education so that it's even less meritocratic as to who can afford it. Is that the educational institution or purpose you'd really want to be a part of then?
posted by narebuc at 8:48 AM on December 1, 2005

I wonder if narebuc read any of the other comments in this thread...
posted by papakwanz at 9:19 AM on December 1, 2005

Do you sympathize with highly educated American grad students who receive free tuition, health insurance, and stipends in exchange for modest teaching duties

as a ph.d. student at the university of florida, i can say that (at least at my school and the one where i did my master's) that teaching assistants are abused. i can barely afford my rent with the stipend the university has given me, even though it includes a tuition waiver. i have to take student loans to cover most of my expenses, even though i also have an outside part time job. my stipend is about $150 a week... that's chump change.

on top of that, my assistantship is a 20-hour a week teaching appointment. i spend more time working with my undergrads and prepping my class than i do on my own work.

by the way -- my health insurance is not free. it's subsidized, and it doesn't include dental, vision, or much of anything -- it's BASIC coverage that will keep us from dying if we get hit by a GRTC bus.

it's a good thing i like my work, because the return on this investment will not be anywhere nearly enough to justify the expense. so yes, i sympathize with these NYU students. we are bitches to the departments we work in, and they use us for much more than they should.

on the bright side, this is valuable experience that will help me land a job later. is it worth it? i don't know. i may end up getting a job outside of academia when i finish the degree because no university position could possibly pay off my loans in any reasonable amount of time.

so, if they are disrupting classes, good for them. without grad students most big universities wouldn't be able to function.

now, i don't sympathize with those in the sciences... i have several friends in biology whose stipends are $20,000+ annually... and it's funded by drug companies and government grants. students in arts and humanities are underfunded.
posted by teletype1 at 9:48 AM on December 1, 2005

Michigan State unionized the grads while I was working on my doctorate. As a science grad I really wasn't affected by this much, aside from health care. As my wife had a full-time job with good health benefits even that wasn't an issue for me. However, I voted for the union because the humanities TAs were getting shafted in terms of work hours, and all of the TAs had shitty health coverage (we're talking no coverage for routine gynecology and that sort of thing - not "frivolous" items like dental and eye coverage. Hell, even the clerical-technical union doesn't have inclusive eye coverage, just a buy-in plan.)

So we unionized. Again, science research brings in big grant money, so no big difference here for me, but other grads got reduced workloads (poor saps in the humanities... they really did work them like dogs!). Then a year or so later I was voted in as my department's union rep. My experience was that the union was an inneffective bunch of humanities intellectuals driven by pro-union pseudo-brotherhood ducktalk taken straight out of the union handbook. I also discovered that the second we unionized the University administration picked up their copy of "How to act like a stereotypical robber-baron Management entity" and began to play from the book word-for word. Absolutely amazing to me. The union didn't do anything despite two-hour long weekly meetings, where everything was bogged down in talk, fluff, and points of parliamentary procedure as defined by Robert's rules of order. Lots of blustering but every single tiny effort to actually DO anything was met with objections, hollow affirmations of "brotherhood", legalistic wrangling, and the inevitable "let's put it off until next week". The only thng anyone ever seemed to have any zeal to get done was the goddamned door-to-door meetngs to try and convince other grads to join and pony up the dues.

On the Management side of things, we suddenly were inundated with paperwork. All of the University stipulaitons that had previously been left up to individual departments were now part of the contract and required. Grads were in danger of losing pay and losing research funding for forgetting to fill out forms we had never had to bother with before. The department was left with no leeway in these matters if it wanted to avoid grievances. It generally sucked for all involved.

Now I'm a PhD working on a fixed-term basis for the department, and believe me the new profs are putting in MANY more hours teaching than the grads in this department are asked to do. My workload jumped from teaching 2 labs per week (50 students) to teaching 5 lectures a week, plus coordinating labs, with anywhere from 60 to 500 students per class. If I get to bed by midnight it's a miracle, typically I am up working on lectures until 2 AM. I didn't have this high a workload while trying to complete my dissertation.

While I have sympathy for the grads I also realize that what is asked of them is often not nearly as much as what they are asking in return. They forget that they are for all intents and purposes expendable, there will always be more grads coming in to take their places. I also understand that the second a union is established the rules are different - the students aren't running things any more, the union is, and it is doing what is best to keep the dues rolling in. The students need a union to protect themselves from the damn union, in my opinion.

(As for the shitty grad insurance... after unionization the same shitty insurance but with slightly better coverage. Chickering Insurance Group. Anyone ever hear of them? Neither have most of the places grads have tried to use the damn thing. But Chickering is owned by Aetna, and oddly enough MSU has a buttload of stock invested in Aetna. Go figure.)
posted by caution live frogs at 10:10 AM on December 1, 2005

Narebuc, I think the grad students are setting an example by their actions - it just happens that they are settting this example while they are also engaging in academic studies and teaching other students OR doing research. It's an example about organizing for fair compensation / benefits and collective bargaining power. It's not to slight the acadmic studies they are simultaneously engaged in - its to ensure that they can continue to remain engaged in those studies and receive fair compensation / benefits for teaching and research. To say that they are paid to get a degree and get subsidized housing ignores the other side of the contract (which, without a collective bargaining position becomes University v. student where the University can dictate whatever stipend is decided). You hold up the starving artist. One can support a grad student's right to unionize one the same basis - one of holding to the ideals behind fair compensation / benefits for labor, collective barganing and the right to unionize. This is no different than teacher's unions, unions for engineers, etc. Saying any of these groups does not have the right to unionize on the basis of some misguided class warfare principle (they are not starving! they don't need the money so they dont need to be fairly compensated!) is a slippery slope - where does it stop? How little money does someone have to make before they have the right to unionize? How unfairly do they have to be treated?

Caution live frogs: Sorry to hear about your experience. And yes, I've heard of Chickering. They were NYU's Insurance provider back in the day.
posted by mahniart at 10:45 AM on December 1, 2005

I can't understand why med students, business students, law students, undergrads, etc. pay or go into debt for a degree while grad students believe they should absolutely not have to do so.

You could argue that they might not make as much after graduating. But, again, I'll point out my (albeit top 20) liberal arts college -- but a tenure track professor there got about 40,000 in her or his first year -- and, the benefits were nice (massively subsidized housing, built in sabbaticals even in your early years) and most of them, albeit further along the line, got a sweet tuition sharing plan for their kids where going to our school was free or they got 20,000 towards the cost of another school.

If you got tenure, your salary would be like 60,000 and you could max out near 90,000 -- albeit after tons of years. Ok, not amazingly great, but if you take the vast majority of law and business students (and even med students if you factor in the time cost of residency) -- they are going to make around the same amount of money on average over their career. And, I know for a fact the situation is better at public universities.

And, a previous point about science based PhDs is very accurate -- lots of such professors and post-docs are able to consult and have side projects on the side which their university affiliations -- unionless or not! -- help them obtain.

So -- I'd really like to know the difference between your run of the mill undergrad, law student, business student, and med student -- people who gladly pay thousands of dollars to go into debt -- and understand they will make their last loan payments at 61-65 years and a freaking grad student!

Just because the university asks of them a certain role -- i.e. teaching -- that is not the role of most other students -- i.e. learning -- they should be treated differently?

What's worse is that the market for most of their passions would die a terrible death if any freedom of choice was instituted at the university. I mean, why is it that at many schools you can say, choose courses from 15th century art versus 16th century art -- but really only have a couple economics classes to choose from also? If students or market forces had their way, many grad students studying ultra-specialized thesis subjects would be unable to find anyone, anywhere willing to pay for them to spend a half a decade learning something they love to do -- all be dammed if they have to TA an intro course too!

I only brought up the starving artist -- to prove a point that I liked about my favorite professors in undergrad -- they honestly believed learning for the sake of learning was a good thing, an end in and of itself.

I just can't understand where grad students are so loan scared that they just can't take up more debt if they want a better life. I only brought up the class issue because, by unionizing, they are only bettering their lives on the backs of OTHER STUDENTS who are the very people who allow them to spend a life doing something they, I thought, love -- or, rather, as my best professors told me -- doing something they would do even if money were not a factor.

To bring up engineers, janitors, teachers, etc. is not the same. Grad students are just that -- STUDENTS -- and for some reason they feel like they have to play by different rules just because they have to TA a class. I know in medical school that you are graded upon how well you communicate and relay information so that your fellow students and residents can learn also -- should they unionize because of that "teaching responsibility"?

Perhaps its higher education that's a crock. I mean, take out a loan people.
posted by narebuc at 11:22 AM on December 1, 2005

Narebuc: Only grad students are so self important to believe they need a union and all its assorted benefits. I went to a small liberal arts school where, gasp, the professors actually loved to teach, get to know the students, and did all the grading, course planning, etc.

Now, see, this really pisses me off. "Only grad students are so self-important"? This is just another example of the 'grad students aren't regular people' attitude that can be weirdly common among non-grad-students. I wonder what entitles you to all that contempt? These supposedly self-important graduate students are a couple years older than you were when you were a college senior. If you're going to NYU (or to a small liberal arts college) then they are probably a lot like you socioeconomically. Some of them, in their later 20s, may be wanting to have families like regular people. They're asking for straightforward things, like health-insurance; I don't see how that's self-important and I don't see how you have the right to sneer.

It's important to understand that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is not exactly a job and not exactly school. It's *certainly* not professional school, for which a person can take out loans in anticipation of vast income in the future (keep in mind, too, that many graduate students already have loans from their undergraduate educations); and at the same time it's wrong to characterize it as a fun part-time job. It's a sustained, lengthy, weird apprenticeship, aimed at turning a basically passive college student into an intellectually extroverted and active professor. It is unlike any kind of 'job training' I have ever known, and it is absolutely nothing like college. Most grad students I know aren't apathetic, maladjusted, "self-important," petulant whiners; they're dedicated, idealistic people in their early 20s who love their students, love what they teach, love *to* teach, and have given up lucrative careers to take the academic route. They would love nothing more than to grow up into those dedicated professors you had as an undergraduate.

I'm a graduate student in English at Harvard, so I don't have any particular knowledge about the NYU situation; but I do know this: Where I am now, we graduate students have our dissatisfactions, but nobody feels exploited. The impression created by the university--which gives us an okay, if basic, health plan, a reasonable stipend for Boston or Cambridge, and which doesn't overload us in terms of teaching--is that we are at the beginning of a long career, not perpetual labor at the graduate-student level. We're well-advised and there is a lot of institutional support to get us through our programs and onto the job market. I don't know if it would even occur to anyone in my department to think of themselves as trapped, exploited, or abused.

It's the fact that I can't even imagine how this situation developed or how the environment at NYU must have precipitated it that makes me cautiously sympathetic with the strikers. There is a tacit agreement, it seems to me, between a university and its graduate students. Both parties recognize that the grad students are still in training, and so aren't making real salaries like real employees; but the university recognizes that its graduate students have made a hard choice in going to graduate school--a choice fueled almost always by idealism and seriousness--and so the university does its best to take care of them within the constraints of their qualifications. If that hasn't happened at NYU--if the university is treating its students as a resource to be exploited--then obviously the students have the right to get mad and do something about it.

The truth is that there's a lot wrong with the academic career path. There are two many graduate students admitted every year; and the time-table for tenure puts unfortunate and unrealistic pressures on students, especially women, making it very difficult to start a family until one's middle or late 30s. On the institutional level there is, as someone up there wrote, something really cynical about the system.
posted by josh at 11:32 AM on December 1, 2005

booksandlibretti, for most people, undergraduate and graduate lifestyles aren't really comprable. Dorm housing is generally cheaper than even subsidized grad student housing, parents are more willing to send money your way, utilities are subsidized and are rolled into the bursar's bill anyways [all of which may be covered by financial aid or parents], a vanishingly small number of undergrads are married or have children, in many schools students go home for the summer and thus only pay for housing and such during term, undergrad dorms are generally close enough to campus that public transportatino or cars are unecessary, undergraduate health plans are more common, etc. Sure, most people waste a little money, but certainly the sample of grad students that I know aren't profligate spenders [unless you consider occasional movies or concerts to be irresponsible spending], and yet they're still barely getting by. You can get by on $600 a term because between financial aid, parents, or what have you, many of the costs that grad students bear don't affect you.

Are most grad students in danger of starving? No, but then neither are most people who get minimal wages. I still think that it's reasonable for both groups to get a living wage so that they don't have to be 'a little scroungey' to afford their ramen noodles or their small, distant apartments. I don't think it's too much to ask for reasonable health plans either, unlike those described by rbs - particularly since a grad student's stipend is probably not large enough to deal with having to buy in to some other health plan. In addition, read unknowncommand's comment again: before the union, they had no health care and a $13.5k stipend. Still look so easy to get by? A few thousand dollars can make a big difference, particularly if you aren't lucky housing-wise, or you're not in great health. Given that [at least in the sciences] grad students generally do research full time and these days are expected to TA or even teach classes on top of that, I don't think asking for a living wage is unreasonable.
posted by ubersturm at 11:33 AM on December 1, 2005

Nurabec, I'll try to answer your question in good faith--from my perspective as an English student, whose job would be eliminated by market forces or whatever:

One big reason that graduate students are different from other students is because, when you become a graduate student, you beocme part of the university in a very particular way. You are really choosing to give a great deal to the university, to the undergraduates, and to your discipline. You're accepting very low pay (which constitutes a huge opportunity cost) and, more importantly, you're committing to six, seven, eight, or even more years as an underpaid yet fully committed teacher. And you're doing so in a profession, unlike law or medicine, with a huge wash-out rate. You're taking an enormous chance which, say what you will, simply is not taken by a law, business, or medical student. That's why graduate students don't like loans.

I think that in order to understand these grad students, you have to understand the huge decision it is to go to grad school in an academic subject. It is a huge risk, and you do it in large part because you love your subject and want to share it with students. Graduate students are really putting some serious trust in their universities that they will be treated reasonably and thought of as real people. In this case it sounds like that didn't happen. I can only just say it again; it's a huge decision.

Your starving-artist comparison is interesting. Most of the graduate students I know graduated at the top of their classes from absolutely top schools, and many of them gave up serious careers in lucrative areas to pursue an academic career. The starving-artist thing is already happening; your feeling seems to be that graduate students ought to make $13,000 a year and actually starve.

Going into academics is something one does for many reasons. I'm doing it because I want to teach, because I love my subject, and because I think that scholarly work is worthwhile and important. I'm not doing it to become a martyr for art.

What's worse is that the market for most of their passions would die a terrible death if any freedom of choice was instituted at the university. I mean, why is it that at many schools you can say, choose courses from 15th century art versus 16th century art -- but really only have a couple economics classes to choose from also? If students or market forces had their way, many grad students studying ultra-specialized thesis subjects would be unable to find anyone, anywhere willing to pay for them to spend a half a decade learning something they love to do -- all be dammed if they have to TA an intro course too!

I think this is interesting too. To me, what makes a university what it is is that it's not a market. The university values knowledge for knowledge's sake, not as an instrument. It teaches courses in the humanities because it believes that the humanities matter. And it hires professors who study the interesting, the esoteric, the specialized, and the unique because, if nobody studies those things, nobody will ever know them.

Graduate school is part of the same world. It's in the university's interest to nurture within itself a community of young, intelligent, dedicated people who push scholarship forward and communicate ideas enthusiastically to their students. Scholarship, and by extension graduate education, are fundamental, constituent parts of the life of a university in a way that a good law school or an MBA program are not. As a graduate student you are not learning something to use after you leave the university; you're learning something that you'll keep within the university and use to nurture the university for the rest of your life.

It's complicated, but the main thing is that there needs to be some degree of mutual trust and respect to make that community go. At NYU that seems to have broken down.
posted by josh at 11:56 AM on December 1, 2005

If wildcat strikers can shut a place down, then the strike is justified. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, anyhow.
posted by warbaby at 12:00 PM on December 1, 2005

Narebuc, I'm assuming that your arguments are coming out of ignorance of how financial aid works for grad school.

When you apply to get in and get a financial aid package (assuming you haven't applied for an external fellowship or grant), for the department they generally tell you how the department plans to support you and whether part of that support will be based on a TA / GA-ship. If you are just coming in, it's possible to be assigned an RA-ship right off the bat if you know who you are going to be working with and they know you too. The reason the department sets it up this way is that grad school is selective and there are few slots to be filled (my department admitted 4 the year I entered - and I came in w / 2 fellowships - good for others because I didn't eat up someone else's TA-ship). They offer financial packages so that they can get the best caliber students to come to their institutions, and failing fellowships or grants, they try to cover as many with TAs/GAs/RAs to get them to come. Loans are supplemental to fellowships/grants and TA/GA/RA-ships. And to suggest grad students don't take out loans is just silly.

Do grad students feel that they should not go into debt while undergrads, law students, med students, etc. should? That's absurd. No one has suggested that. And you should try to understand how financial aid works for those groups too (fellowships, research paid by external grants for med students - no need to TA). A better analogy would have been whether undergraduates involved in work study programs have a right to unionize...

Saying that grad student unionizing is just helping themselves on the backs of other students is simply not true. These changes take place over time - it took years for stipend increases to occur and for health insurance to be covered 100%. Unionization was met by a negative reaction from the administration and some faculty but led to improvement for future, OTHER students - improving working conditions.

From your statements, I can only figure that you love your teachers when they are starving. If they're not starving, they get no love.
posted by mahniart at 12:33 PM on December 1, 2005

narebuc, I think you're making a big mistake in equating grad school with undergrad or professional schools. Undergraduates and students in professional schools take classes. That's the main point - soaking in knowledge relevant to their field. In grad school, the main point is research - as josh says, it's about transforming a college graduate who's been passively soaking up knowledge into a skilled researcher who's actively discovering new things. That involves classes, yes, but the research and the thesis really are the most important aspects of grad school. The primary thing that undergraduates and students in professional schools give to their school is money. Grad students, on the other hand, do a great deal of the research, lab work, and so on that research universities are known for. They take classes, but they're also something like apprentices and something like full-fledged employees whose research helps define the university itself. It's a weird mix, and one that's not really comprable to being a normal student. [jfuller makes the opposite mistake, dismissing the student aspects of grad school - grad classes are _not_ a leisure time activity. They're there to give grad students the in-depth background they need to go into a very specific field - the classes're fairly narrowly focused and often involve studying the current literature in the field. Additionally, stipends are generally attached to research rather than TAing, although some TAing may be required - the job of a grad student is research, and if you look at the hours spent on that, they're financially very poorly compensated indeed.]

Grad students generally don't complain because they don't live a life of luxury. They complain because they don't have health care and can't afford external health care on their stipend, or because subsidized housing or graduate dorms are available for only a fraction of the student body [leaving the rest to the whims of housing bubbles], or because the university won't provide childcare but a grad student stipend won't cover the cost of such care at nearby places. They're not looking to get rich, they just want to be able to adequately take care of themselves and [if they have one] their family. If they can't do that, then no matter how much they love their research and the idea of someday becoming a dedicated professor, they may be forced to go elsewhere and get a job. A "truly starving artist" can get a part time or menial job and still do art. A poor grad student is already working far more than full time on their research, may be spending quite a few more hours on their TAing, and probably can't fit in another job, no matter how desperate they are. They're already pretty damn close to the 'starving artist' end of the spectrum, and, as josh says, there are far fewer financial guarantees for people who go into academics than those who take out loans and go to a professional school. This whole "they can't really care about it if they're not willing to starve for it" attitude is dumb, and it ties in all too well with the attitude that languagehat mentions earlier in the thread.

And "why do most schools have a lot of humanities courses but not economics?" That might have something to do with having gone to a small liberal arts school. Most large universities offer a great number of courses in the things you find useful as well as the sorts of things you seem to feel should be eliminated by the market. I'm one of those people who buys into the liberal arts/life of the mind thing feels that college should be more than a trade school, so I'm happy to see that universities aren't ruled by the market yet.
posted by ubersturm at 12:43 PM on December 1, 2005

Well put uberstrum...

To just give an example, one of the grad students at NYU who came to the department I was in a year after me (and he was the "whiz kid" of the year w/ a NSF fellowship) actually lived IN the department, on a couch in his shared office for over a year. Now this was NOT allowed (even pre-9/11 we needed cards to get in after hours), but everyone (including the department, who knew it was going on) just ignored it because everyone knew what the situation was. He showered at other people's places. And he loved what he was doing - was working with kids, doing incredible research, one of the sharpest guys I've met. But not living a life of "luxury".
posted by mahniart at 1:01 PM on December 1, 2005

It's part of your job because grad school isn't like undergrad, which has largely turned into 4 years of socializing to get a piece of paper to go work in a cubicle.

I don't know what the fuck you majored in at the undergrad level but there was a lot more to my CS work than "socializing," and I was "only" at a state school, not some highly competitive ivy league U. There may be degrees that are little better than attendance certifications but claiming all undergrad work is nothing more than showing up is bullshit elitism.

Someone else can make the obligatory CS social skills jokes.
posted by phearlez at 1:37 PM on December 1, 2005

To answer your question smackfu some grad students can opt to just pay for everything. I am in what's considered a professional graduate degree (two year masters in speech-language pathology) and I could just decide not to get an RA or TA position (which are hard to get for master's students usually) and just pay tuition with loans.

But the problem is that most schools have a cap on how much in loans you can take out. I took out the max ($18k/year) to live on and pay tuition and fees. Tuition and fees are $9.5/k a year, leaving me another $8.5k to live on for the rest of the year. Add in car insurance, health insurance (which would have cost $1k a piece), rent (housing here is pretty high because of all the college students) and that $8.5K dwindles pretty damn quick. Some people I know do have part time jobs as SLP-Assistants or something similar, but it's usually only a few hours a week because we're all taking five courses at least as well as required to work in the clinic without pay (it's a class we have to take.)

I was lucky; I had some money squirreled away that I could rely on from a previous job that paid very well. But come next year I had no idea how I was going to make ends meet. Luckily I got an RA position, and I get a tuition waiver (note that it's just tuition, my school has about $3k in in-state tuition, and ~$6.5K in fees that *aren't* waived) health insurance at 90% reduction in cost, and a very modest stipend that will at least help somewhat. If there wasn't a GEO I probably couldn't afford any health insurance and I'd be paid half as much, and I ride a bike, the chances of me getting creamed on the road are kind of high. :^)

So why do you need car insurance you ask! Well, soon I will be doing off-campus practicums that require me to travel to my clinic assignment, that's why taking my car off the road to save $ wouldn't be feasable.

But getting back to your question, it's not always possible for a grad student to just choose to pay out of pocket for school with loans.
posted by absquatulate at 5:04 PM on December 1, 2005

I'm too late to answer a lot of stuff (although if you guys want to take anything to e-mail, especially housing situation stuff, I'm happy to). There are still a couple of points I want to make here, though.

I don't know about the history, but GAs in the sciences are not currently prevented from joining the union. At all. Those I've spoken to don't want to join, because they are happy with their pay, which apparently comes at least partially from government grants/fellowships that most humanities departments don't get.

Also, when I/we say that grad students are disrupting education, I don't mean that they're disrupting education just by not TAing. I'm taking 18 credits, and have TAs for all of my classes. Lectures have gone on as usual in all of these classes; about 80% of students continue to attend, and I don't feel that my learning is being impaired at all. No, when I say they're disrupting education, I mean they're standing directly beneath the (normally very respected) silent study area of the library and encouraging cars to honk and playing trumpets. And no, this area is not near the administrative offices they claim they're trying to disturb. It's to piss off the undergrads who are trying to study on their own -- that's the only explanation. It doesn't matter who you are or what kind of job you have, that's going to be disruptive.

My problem with the current action is threefold.
1) I think grad students are primarily students, not primarily workers. Yeah, they hold recitations, but they are teaching to learn. This is my opinion, and this is what the NLRB went back and forth on; currently, they agree with me.
2) I am not convinced the strike is justified. This is mostly what we were discussing above.
3) I strongly disagree with the way the strike/action is being conducted. As an undergrad, I looked up to these grad students tremendously. They are now behaving extremely immaturely on almost every possible level. I don't know how I'm going to face them in the classroom next semester now that I've lost a huge amount of respect for them.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:41 PM on December 1, 2005

Actually I said it was four years of socializing, not four years of showing up.
posted by papakwanz at 8:07 PM on December 1, 2005

About loans -- they are capped -- but only if you want subsidized, government loans. There are private lenders out there who will gladly give you money -- but at higher rates. I'm not sure what mainhart is saying about med, law, and business school being all that subsidized either -- it's just that subsidized LOANS are bigger -- I'm in one such school and I have to take out $40,000/year to cover everything from health care to books to transportation (i expand later). And, a decent majority of my classmates have to do the same.

But, I guess our disagreement is that you feel that such talk in the debate about unionized, striking grad students such is beside the point. And, josh, I will understand some type of uniqueness to the grad student-university relationship that I, as an outsider to that world, can't grasp. But, is it not fair to talk cash more frankly?

Say a grad student has a $70,000 in undergrad loans and is forced to take out $25,000/year for their PhD. -- I'm assuming they still get a stipend and subsidized housing. But, like I said, in my professional school I have to take out $40,000 a year and that covers health insurance, books, rent, etc. I could take out more from private lenders. So, yes.....guess what -- most students have to take out loans for health care insurance too!

At any rate, at six years for a PhD. thats about $220,000 in loans for their higher education. This number is sadly on par for many law, business, and medical students -- and not too too above some master's degree students. And, I want to say it's a rare case for a grad student to graduate with anywhere near that much debt.....but, that means they will owe about $1200 a month if they wait until 65 to pay off their loans -- that's $14,400 a year. It's a lot of money, but that $14,400/year gets you a lifetime salary of at least $60,000/year (and that's very much a conservative estimate -- and, remember, science/engineering/economics guys make more). Now, you would have made a lot more had you invested that money -- but that's really the point is it? Many other students routinely make this sacrifice and figure its worth it. Moreover, you get to live in the world of academia and all its inherent pleasures.

Listen, I'd love to talk about Thucydides all day long and get paid for it, but I decided I'd rather have a different life -- and includes a lot of dubious stuff that really probably helps no one.

You guys get to be freaking professors who are constantly around the world of ideas and are responsible for the intellectual development of a nation. That's an impressive tradeoff and the fact that -- albeit at an extreme -- I'm asking you to stop whining at pay $14,000/year in student loans until you are 65 -- so as to keep tuition affordable and stable for the rest of us -- should simply not be that much of a burden. Josh's point about the wash out rate is a great one -- but, again, wouldn't loans somehow stem it? Perhaps it keeps the serious students in the pipeline. Perhaps there's more to the wash out than I know however....

Josh -- thanks for your eloquent response. You're definitely a professor I would have loved and, please, no I am not expecting a professor to be starving in order to be good. Just think about things. It's just that when grad students -- intelligent, well meaning, people who are supposed to show students the beauty of the intellectual life -- do things like strike without thinking of who will pay for their expanded benefits and without understanding that other students go through.

I am not saying to abolish the stipidend system. Listen, if I had to teach I'd want to get paid too. But, say you're at NYU -- I think $15,000/year plus housing and health care is amazingly fair. Unions, by effect, are meant to pool the collective power of labor to meet the collective power of capital (and, especially josh, that's precisely where I hope that universities are unlike the market).

At any rate, unions tend to make things more expensive for everyone, at the cost of helping the worker. This effect is fine as we pay more for a trip on United Airlines than JetBlue -- but, when it comes to jacking up the price for college tuition just so a grad student gets a bit more of a stipend -- well, I think THAT sacrifices the intellectual/educative purpose of higher education more than most people understand.

The end result of this debate and its unseemly strikes and demands makes an university education something like buying a needlessly expensive airline ticket -- which is, well, sort of sad. I became, thankfully, a better, happier, more engaged person because of a liberal education mostly filled by role models and professors, starving or not, who easily saw the difference.

Thanks to people who disagreed for keeping this thread going. It's been good.
posted by narebuc at 9:01 PM on December 1, 2005

Narebuc, it seems like the only way you are going to be satisfied is if NYU (and other private university) grad students not unionize AND somehow arrange to stop receiving financial assistance or TA/GA/RA-ships so that they accumlate as much debt as law, business, and medical students. If this is your criteria for fairness, I won't try to convince you otherwise.

You say that "unions tend to make things more expensive for everyone" - I'd suggest you look at NYU tuition and fees from 1996-2002 and from 2002-present day.

You say that $15k/yr + housing and health care is amazingly fair. Ah, if only that were what were offered before the NLRB decision and the UAW contract. And housing is still not a given now. Again, you may want to look into that before making the assertion. You've also overestimated the (average) stipend prior to the NLRB decision and underestimated it since the decision.

I'd love to talk about Thucydides all day long, too. Haven't done that since late 80s though. I guess that's because in grad school I was a social sciences major and was doing research - mostly experimental and computational / mathematical. And was not planning on going into academia (was not planning on "being a freaking professor ... constantly around the world of ideas and ... responsible for the intellectual development of a nation"). Many of my peers were also research focused and were doing RAs off grants w/ faculty.

These kind of characterizations and generalizations do not help others understand the issue (because it's not just about teaching - it's about grad student researchers having the ability to collectively bargain for fair compensation as well). There's no sense of entitlement (they shouldn't have to take out loans!) or intellectual superiority (don't interrupt my musings on Thucydides!) - no need to bring your own baggage into this discussion.

Booksandlibretti: I'm sorry you've lost respect for the grad students who are striking. I'm even more sorry if you're trying to study at the library (striking outside of Bobst?) and are being disturbed.

I'd agree, grad students are first and foremost students. However, some of them are ALSO workers. The question is whether those that are workers have the right to organize and collectively bargain. Just because you are a student doesn't mean you can't be a laborer - they aren't mutually exclusive.

If you aren't convinced the strike is justified, I'd read up a bit at the Washington Square News website archives or the UAW website, there's information there that might help.

About "GAs in the sciences are not currently prevented from joining the union. At all." - In the original UAW contract those in science schools (and CNS) who were RAs on external grants were excluded from the contract and could NOT join. But don't take my word for it, read the contract yourself - it should be at the UAW local website.
posted by mahniart at 10:03 PM on December 1, 2005

mahniart, they are striking immediately outside of Bobst, on Washington Square South. They say the purpose is for Sexton to hear them, which is nonsense. Sexton is on the top floor, the twelfth, and the noise cuts off by, say, the eighth floor. More to the point, Sexton's office is at the back of Bobst. If the strikers were doing it to piss off Sexton, they'd be picketing on West 3rd. (FYI, in the past few weeks, they were also occasionally picketing in smaller numbers on the north and south sides of Main/Silver, but they no longer have the manpower to make that possible.)

I am an undergrad, and I have work-study. Needless to say, I am not part of a union. I cannot bargain about my salary, and my perks, including health insurance, are nonexistent. Why? 'Cause although I do work, my primary role is not that of a worker.

Also, my work-study job is at the WSN. Those articles? Probably ones I've copyedited. The WSN, particularly the op-ed section, is demonstrating some bias, in my opinion. And for some reason I don't think the UAW is the place to get objective facts.

As I said, "I don't know about the history" of whether or not GAs in science departments were allowed to unionize before; I wasn't saying that they had been allowed to before, but that I didn't know. In any case, they can now. I am also not sure what you mean by "those in science schools." CAS, the College of Arts and Science, is one college that encompasses humanities and hard and soft sciences.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:39 PM on December 1, 2005

By science schools I meant Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Center for Neural Science. Sackler Institute and MBAs from Stern were outside of the contract too. The contract is at http://www.nyu.edu/hr/pdf/forms/loc2110.pdf

I didn't know Sexton's office was in Bobst, now it makes more sense.
posted by mahniart at 11:11 PM on December 1, 2005

Yeah, the top floor (actually, I think top two floors) of Bobst are offices. That's marked on the elevators, but I think everyone figures that they're offices for librarian-type stuff: Office of Pasting On Due Dates, or Office of Fixing Bindings, or Office of Stamping NYU's Name Everywhere. Those offices are actually in the basement (I always forget whether A or B is deeper, but I'm pretty sure those offices are on the deeper of the two). The eleventh- and twelfth-floor offices are literally for the higher-ups.
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:24 PM on December 1, 2005

Office of Stamping NYU's Name Everywhere - oh, that really should be an office! :)
posted by mahniart at 11:36 PM on December 1, 2005

nurabec, thanks for your response! I guess I only have two more things to say:

First, one of the things that makes this discussion hard is that there are so many different types of graduate students. I am in fact "reading Thucydides" all day, or something like that, plus teaching, etc.; and I suppose that that might make me "more of a student," as my own post about my current experience suggests. Other graduate students are working full-time jobs in a lab on research for which their advisor gets credit while being paid $15,000 a year. Plus there are masters students, students in semi-professional programs, and so on. So there's a lot of variety. I think this is pretty obvious from the responses in this thread. So you have to be careful when thinking about 'graduate students' in general, since there is a lot more variety to what they are doing than among the undergraduate population or one's experience of that population.

Second, I'd say that the 'wash-out rate' really is a bigger deal, at least in the humanities, than you may think or imagine it to be. I'm, academically speaking, an extremely 'qualified' graduate student; I graduated from Princeton, am getting a doctorate from Harvard, and am assembling what I consider to be a stellar committee here. Yet there is a very, very significant chance--about 50%--that after spending my 20s teaching sections for a stipend, I will not be able to get a job. There is an even greater chance that I will never be able to get a tenure-track job, and, beyond that, a yet-greater chance that I will not receive tenure. And there are other factors as well. My girlfriend of many years and I both became graduate students in the same program here (already a small miracle); if we decide to have a family, it's very likely that one of us will have to give up our academic career so that we can live with one another. The academia / family conflict is a huge part of the wash-out rate.

It is, in other words, perfectly likely that I will not have an academic job at all in the future. I just cannot assume much debt--and certainly not $220,000 worth of debt--in this context. A lawyer or doctor will be employed when they finish in some capacity related to their degree. But one of the weird things about graduate school in the humanities is that it's not clear that you are going to 'get to be' what you are training to be for up to a decade. You could, in effect, have signed up for graduate school as an end in itself. At my 30th birthday, I could find that I have no job, no career, and just need to start over in some random field of my choosing. At 30 I could be assuming that $220,000 of debt for law school; so I absolutely cannot take on debt now. If I'm going to take the chance of going to graduate school, I need university support; and the university, in turn, needs young people to take that chance.

Now, please understand, I'm not moaning and complaining: I knew that all this was true before I started. What I am saying is that this decision was only possible for me because I didn't have to take out loans of any real substance, and because I knew that my university would be treating me well. If this weren't the case--if I were earning far below the poverty line and felt that I was being exploited by my university--I would be pretty mad too. So, in the context of this thread: though I have no idea about the particulars of how the strikes are being carried out, etc., in principle I don't think there's anything wrong with them.

Really, I just want to argue against the point-of-view that imagines graduate students as coddled, self-indulgent complainers taking a 7-year vacation from life 'at the expense' of hard-working undergraduates. Honestly I think that nothing could be further from the truth.
posted by josh at 5:46 AM on December 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to say that I hate josh because I didn't get into Harvard.
posted by papakwanz at 6:34 PM on December 2, 2005

Josh -- I just wanted to thank you again for your comments and I'm sorry I didn't reply earlier.

I've changed my mind a bit -- especially in light of your wash out rate comment -- and, my god, if you can't make it -- I fear for many, many, many kids going for their PhD.

Still -- I hold fast that I think unionizing is a bad way to go about this business since it only inflates a fair price for an already inflated, bloated tuition at every place of higher education in this country. Perhaps universities should treat you decently to begin with -- and I think such an "understanding" is what a place like Harvard gives to its students. It has the endowment to do so however.....
posted by narebuc at 8:23 PM on December 4, 2005

Do they do work for pay? Do they receive W2s?

Then they are employees, and should have the legal right to unionise, period.

Now whether they should unionise is a good debate, but it's one that the graduate students should be having. Every worker should have the right to vote for or against unionisation. If the union can get 50% of the students to support them in a fair, secret ballot vote, the students deserve a union.

That said, I'm not really happy with the group who wants to unionise my university, because they don't support a secret ballot vote. But they have the right to try, just like I have the right not to join them or otherwise support them.

By the way, in a closed shop, you don't have to join the union. You have to pay dues, which is fair considering you also get any negotiated benefits, but you can arrange that you are not a member of the union, and are not subject to their authority or fines should you choose to work during a strike.
posted by jb at 4:02 PM on December 6, 2005

And I say this as someone who was an undergraduate during an 11 week TA strike (beat that, NYU!), and whose school did let many undergraduates fail. I didn't, though I did nearly have a nervous breakdown trying to catch up.
posted by jb at 4:04 PM on December 6, 2005

And I was way more anti-union before the NYU president turned to out right union bashing. I may diss my union all the time, but take away the legal right of employees to unionise? That's the sort of thing that might even get me out to picket!
posted by jb at 4:09 PM on December 6, 2005

Okay, jb.

I have work-study. I do work and I get paid. I am not part of a union, and I have no say in my pay or benefits. I take the job or I don't.

My friend is a student teacher. She does work and she doesn't get paid. She is not part of a union, and she has no say in her pay or benefits. She doesn't even have a choice about whether or not to take the job.

You think we should legally be able to unionize? If not, do you get my point? I think grad students are much, much closer to student teachers than they are to (say) cafeteria workers.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:37 PM on December 6, 2005

Yes, booksandlibretti, I think you should be allowed to unionise. That's what having fair labour law means. Whether you want to unionise or not is up to you. Just like people at Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft or Goldman and Sachs should all have the right to unionise, if a majority want to. Or to not unionise, if a majority don't want to. Personally, I've hung signs around my university stating why I didn't want the current student group to represent me - this is called debate. But I think they should be allowed to hold the secret ballot vote to find out what TAs want.

I know exactly what part of my funding is wages and what part is scholarship (for my unpaid research). I receive a W2 for my wages, and a 1042-S for my scholarship. When I first arrived in graduate school, I had only a scholarship. At one point, I may only have wages. When I have wages, I am a worker. While I am registered, I am a student. I don't understand this "they are students, not workers" - we can be both.

I don't know if your friend is an employee or not - as you say, she doesn't get paid and as far as I know, that would mean her work isn't employment. It would be like my research work (for which I do not get paid), and not covered by labour law. Whether this is morally right or not is another question.
posted by jb at 5:03 PM on December 6, 2005

One thing - You mention cafeteria workers as if unionising graduate students is insulting to them. Actually, the cafeteria workers here (alongwith the secretaries, technitians and other unionised positions) at my university are some of the most ardent supporters of the group that is trying to unionise graduate students - I would say there is more support from them than from the graduate students (of whom only about 1/2 support the proto-union, according to the last vote). They support it because they believe that graduate student unions help them a great deal, and because it means that educated and artculate people are working to support workers' rights everywhere.
posted by jb at 5:16 PM on December 6, 2005

(sorry - that should be "insulting cafeteria workers" by comparing them to graduate students, not insulting graduate students.)
posted by jb at 5:17 PM on December 6, 2005

Sorry, jb, it wasn't my intent to contrast grad assistants with cafeteria workers specifically or to imply anything thereby. I could've said librarians, or full professors, as easily.

I can see an argument for allowing me to unionize. Okay, it's giving me experience, but so do other jobs -- and I'm doing this to get paid, not to get experience.

I can't see why my friend shouldn't be able to unionize, but why grad assistants should be able to. My friend is teaching to learn. She's finding out firsthand what strategies work best, how to interact with students, everything else. I think this is exactly what grad students who TA are doing -- the vast majority of grad assistants are getting their doctorates so they can become professors. Who have to teach classes. Like they're doing now as GAs.

I mean, teaching unrelated classes isn't much fun; my friend the student teacher wants to teach high-school languages eventually, and now she's stuck teaching elementary math. But the whole point is that even though it's not optimal, you can teach classes unrelated to your specialty, because you're learning about teaching in general.

FWIW, in this case, it isn't the big bad administration that's suppressing numbers. GSOC refuses to release lots of numbers. We know from NYU that there are about 1000 people who're affected by this, but GSOC refuses to tell us how many of those voted to support the strike or other action. Considering that there are about twenty picketers on any given day, I think this refusal is because disclosure would hurt GSOC. This also tends to indicate that well less than 50% (or 51%, or 67%, or any other majority) of the people affected actually want and are willing to work for the action.
posted by booksandlibretti at 5:26 PM on December 6, 2005

books - why your friend isn't allowed to unionise doesn't make sense, it's a technicality. If she isn't being paid, than I don't know if she could be legally defined as an employee. Whereas graduate TAs are paid, and under the same tax laws as emploment income.

As a graduate student, I don't teach for the experience - I did the first time, but not last term when I was falling behind in my mandatory work due to my teaching load (in an unrelated class, which was part of the problem). I taught so I would have money to pay rent. And for people in my field - European History - teaching requirements often interfeer with our ability to carry out our research, because we need to go overseas to research, but we have no funding unless we teach (because we are funded through employment - about 7/8 of my stipend is employment income, the other 8th is scholarship). It is a job - at my university it is (by the hour) a well paid job, and with relatively good conditions, but that doesn't make it any less a job.

If graduate teaching were just about experience, we would be doing a hell of a lot more lecturing, which is a big part of university teaching, and less section leading. As it is, my department is fighting with some professors to try to make sure that graduate students have at least some experience with lecturing. I have done a year of teaching - I have given no lectures and set no curriculum (if I remember right from grade school, our student teacher did both in the month she was visiting us).

We should also have a system that tried to make sure that we could teach in the fields we are working in. I am angry about something specific - I was chosen for an unrelated class because they were short for that class, and missed a chance to teach in an extremely important subject - the Reformation - related to my field. Had teaching assignments been about my education and development, I should have been put on that class, maybe only with one section (everyone in my department does two, unless there is only one for the class). I actually did not learn very much at all about teaching in general, because I was spending too much time just trying to learn the basic material. I had no chance to work on curricular issues, nor did I have the freedom to do so. The professor I was working for was very nice, and very supportive (especially considering that there were 12 TAs), but the experience was not professional development - it was a job. Perhaps it's best to think of it like an apprenticeship - and last time I checked, apprentices are paid for what they do, and allowed to join unions.

As for your friend, her student teaching program should either a) design their practicums in a manner that is most well suited to their professional development or b) stop pretending it isn't a job, and just pay them already.

I do know what you mean about secretive unions - the group at my university will never tell us how many people actually vote for a strike (and thus how many are in the union). At one point, however, they must have had 50% support among the affected TAs, because they passed a NLRB secret ballot vote. How many picketers there are at any given time is deceptive - they are probably only picketing part-time (makes sense, for a part-time job). And people will forego picketing - a contract lecturer at my undergrad university didn't picket because he had two other classes to teach at another university.

I do actually understand and sympathise greatly with the stress that the undergraduates are under - when I was in my third year of undergrad, there was an 11 week TA strike at my university, and in the aftermath I just about had a nervous breakdown trying to catch up. Some of my friends dropped or failed courses, including one who didn't graduate on time. I finished my course work for that year in July, while I was trying to work full time for tuition.

But at the same time, a TA strike is still less disruptive to society than a public transit strike, a public school teacher strike, a hospital strike. We allow unions in all of these sectors. Personally, I have thought for some time that for unions should be allowed in the public sector, but that there should be more restrictions on both unions and employers to prevent strikes - such as forced arbitration. Strikes in the public sector don't hurt customers, because you aren't really a customer, you are someone who depends on that service and cannot go elsewhere. Undergraduates, like public transit riders, become collatoral damage, and this should not happen. It's one of the reasons I can't bring myself to strike, even when I do agree with the proto-union (it isn't actually one yet, since they haven't had a secret ballot vote for recognition).

But that doesn't make them not employees - and I do find it very insulting when people upthread (not you) make remarks like "it isn't real work". We are employees - being well paid (by the hour, not by the year) and liking what we do (for the most part) doesn't change that, any more than a doctor isn't working, or a lawyer. (Actually, I now have more years of education than a lawyer - yay me.) My mother really enjoys being a bookkeeper - but she isn't about to volunteer to do it.
posted by jb at 6:49 PM on December 7, 2005

I guess GAing is done differently at NYU, or at least in the English department (which is the only department I have real experience with).

The English 101 class, Lit Interp, which is required for all English majors, is taught entirely by English-department GAs. So is the writing 101 class, which all members of the college (science majors and everyone) have to take. In both cases, one GA is responsible for about 10 to 15 students. The GA will lecture as well as lead discussions, and develops his/her curriculum within very broad limits. There is no professor affiliated with the class that the GAs answer to.

Even in big lectures, there are far fewer GAs who have far more sections. One of my current English classes is, eh, probably 125ish; there are two TAs for the class, and each one has three different sections. The most TAs I've ever seen in a class (an introductory non-English-dept. class) was six, and that was a class of 300.

I assumed that the way NYU handled GAs and TAing was just the way it was done. I didn't realize it differed so greatly at other schools, and I like the system you describe a whole lot less than I like (what I know of) NYU's.

One thing you mention is that "At one point, however, they must have had 50% support among the affected TAs" -- not quite. They had some kind of majority support of the TAs who voted. But they won't tell us how many voted, not even a total. I only combined that nondisclosure with picketing information to demonstrate my belief that they aren't talking because it wouldn't look good. (BTW, they're supposed to be picketing -- or doing office work, if they're physically incapable of picketing -- for 20 hours/week if they want the UAW to pay them.)

NYU is actually being astonishingly good about this. I think in the OP there was a link to an NYU site that showed all the accommodations they're willing to make -- these are accommodations they would never consider making in other circumstances. And just today, I got a free $20 Metrocard from NYU because one of my classes is held so far off-campus.

(And I wasn't arguing that GAs shouldn't be allowed to strike because it would be disruptive. I haven't found it to be awfully disruptive, for one thing -- and for another, all strikes are supposed to be disruptive; that's kind of the point.)
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:39 PM on December 7, 2005

« Older Flash Mob Opera   |   A novel in twelve fish. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments