NYU teaching assistants struggle for union

NEW YORK — A coalition of labor, political leaders and community organizations gathered Dec. 5 in front of New York University’s Bobst Library, where the school’s administration is located, in support of the approximately 1,000 graduate teaching assistants (TAs) who have been on strike since Nov. 9.

Over 300 people attended the rally, which was characterized by spirited chants of solidarity. The event was organized by GSOC/UAW Local 2110, the graduate students’ union.

NYU has taken advantage of a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that overturned an NLRB decision five years ago giving graduate students at private universities the right to organize. After an influx of Bush administration appointees to the NLRB, the agency reversed its position and now gives private universities the option to disregard the earlier decision.

Elizabeth, a striking teacher, told the World, “The ruling takes away the legal mandate of the university to continue to recognize the union, but it also permits them to do so. That mandate has been taken away, but support for the union remains.”

NYU President John Sexton recently adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy to break the union. He announced that anyone who did not return to teaching by Dec. 5 will not be allowed back for two semesters, and will lose their annual $19,000 stipend. However, the graduate students vow to continue, even in the face of Sexton’s threats.

Dwight Loines, the UAW’s political action director, said, “NYU has decided to throw our contract out the window. They refuse to bargain with us using as the phony excuse the NLRB ruling which was handed down by a board dominated by right-wing Bush appointees. They’re out to squash labor but we recognize a higher right, human rights.”

Recognizing the importance the strike has for all labor, both sides of the recent labor split were in attendance to express their solidarity. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was present, as was Unite Here President John Wilhelm. United Here is part of the recently founded Change to Win Coalition.

Sweeney said that many unions are familiar with NYU’s tactics. “They recognized the union five years ago, now they are trying to renege and break the union. It’s disgraceful,” he said. “Next week, Dec. 10, we celebrate Human Rights Day. I’m going to say we’re starting the celebration in support of these courageous workers here. This is an example of a violation of human rights here in our own country. We can talk about human rights all around the world but we should pay attention to human rights here in our own country as well.”

Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, asked rally participants to bring checks to the Human Rights Day celebration for the graduate students’ strike fund.

Rank-and-file members of many unions came out to show support. Elbon, a member of Unite Here, came with several of her co-workers on their lunch hour from Brooklyn and Queens to show solidarity with the striking TAs. Referring to the previous organizing drive at NYU, Sylvester Manfield of Unite Here Local 54 said, “We beat them before, we will beat them again.”

While the strike goes into its second month, many faculty members are holding classes outside university grounds in a show of solidarity with the teaching assistants. As the semester comes to an end this December, the labor movement is standing solidly behind these workers until a just settlement is won.