November 11, 2005

Nerds strike!

Lindsay Beyerstein gives a summary and some photos for the first day of the NYU grad student's strike.

A long rant below.

Grad students are fundamental employees of any modern research university, on a par with the faculty and staff. Typically, TAs are responsible for every aspect of freshman- and sophomore-level courses except the three hours of lecture a week: running the discussion/review sessions; grading the homework, exams, and papers; and meeting with students in office hours. The difference between the work done by a TA with three thirty-person discussion sections and an adjunct faculty member (someone in a non-tenure track position) teaching three thirty-person classes is minimal. However, TAs are typically paid only about half of the pittance adjunct faculty members make -- at some schools, the TA stipend is barely enough to keep one person above the official poverty line, and two or more people living off one stipend would qualify for public assistance -- and are given little to no non-monetary benefits. For example, I have only subsidized health insurance, my school only paying for about half my premium, and that insurance is crap: the maximum benefit is ridiculously low, like $10k a year, and I have no coverage for dental or vision. Due to receding gums, I may be in danger of losing a couple teeth in the next year without dental insurance, and I only have a single pair of glasses with the right prescription. If I were female, I'd be in an even worse situation, as birth control and abortion procedures are simply not covered (naturally, viagara and the like are covered), and only ONE of an annual physical and annual gynaecological exam are covered. I also strongly suspect that children of grad students usually do not get the tuition exemption the children of faculty and staff enjoy. Finally, grad students usually have no official status in matters of department administration, not even a representative to advise the faculty in hiring and firing decisions.

The situation is actually even more fucked-up at state universities, where grad students are routinely not considered state employees when benefits are considered (usually, grad students are the only employees of the state not qualified to at least have the option of buying highly subsidized health insurance), but usually have to jump through the same loops as other state employees (ethics and diversity training classes, or random drug screenings might conceivably be required in this way). Fortunately, grad students at state universities do not have the NLRB ruling working against them, just the usual anti-union scare mongering and intransigent, condescending administration. (It took the UIC administration over a year to recognize the grad student union there after it was officially recognized by the NLRB.)

The NLRB ruling is particularly odious, and it's important that the NYU students are successful in renewing their contract and getting the ruling overturned. As Lindsay notes, the ruling says that grad students at private universities simply aren't allowed to unionize, while grad students at public universities are. This double standard is just wrong, of course, but the motivation for blocking grad students from unionizing is especially pernicious: the logic, essentially, is that grad students are students, and hence not employees. This mirrors a largely unspoken attitude that runs throughout academia, and is also used by university administrators to exploit non- and pre-tenure faculty: we're supposed to be in this profession because we're passionate intellectuals, teachers, and scientists, and thus we ought not be caught up in material concerns like 'having both food and car' and 'not worrying about how to pay the doctor's bills'. Thus, we (grad students, adjunct and assistant faculty) aren't supposed to need unions, and its petty and selfish to expect our employers to meet with us as equals to determine a fair contract -- which is one of the oldest anti-union memes around.

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