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Shorter John Sexton: We don’t want graduate student teaching at NYU to exploitative like it is at those public universities. In order to make sure this state of affairs comes to fruition, we’ll use reactionary decisions by NLRB Bush appointees to ruin the careers of a generation of young scholars in retaliation for union activities.

Sexton’s message to graduate students (reprinted by Jesse Lemisch here, following a nice rejoinder) is deserving of a more thorough fisking than I have time to give it. The jist is quite simple–come back to work without a union today, or lose your job (and, in most cases, the ability to continue with your education) for the next five months. The features of his “amnesty offer” are familiar to those of us who’ve seen graduate student unionization efforts before. One of my favorites: The creation of a “working group” on graduate student employee issues to replace the union. No instituionalized power, of course, but the administration promises to listen!

Sexton’s missive is light actual specific reasons for his decision to use such extraordinary and reactionary measures to bust GSOC. For some further enlightenment, the comments thread in this Jason Stanley post at the Leiter Reports are quite helpful. It seems a few members of the NYU philosophy faculty have chosen (unlike none of their English and History colleagues) to stand behind their administration’s reactionary policies. David Velleman:

During the life of the union contract, the union had lodged grievances challenging the alloocation of teaching assignments, which were clearly within the academic purview of the departments involved. It was the union’s refusal to limit itself to negotiating compensation and benefits, and its insistence on a closed shop, that precipitated the current strike. Given that the union is determined to interfere in academic decisionmaking, the administration is clearly right to stand its ground.

This sounds like a potentially legitimate concern, but the presentation of the issue here is highly misleading. What Velleman is objecting to is a greivence procedure with an independent arbitor making the final decision. A department might decide to not continue to offer teaching to a student for a host of reasons, some primarily academic and some primarily job performance related; some perfectly legitimate and some deeply illegitimate. How can the union protect it’s employees without giving them a change to defend themselves? It’s perfectly reasonable and to be expected that employees and the administration might disagree about what constitutes a workplace greivance and what constitutes an academic issue; that’s the beauty of an independent arbitrator.

Still, if this process is being abused, that might help explain the administration position. Fellow pro-administration philosopher Paul Bohgossian, later in the thread, provides the horrific details of a greivance procedure run amok:

One of the areas in which our department is weak is in Aesthetics. We certainly have no graduate students who work in that area. So when one of our new hires offered to give a course in that area, we had no qualified graduate student to assign to that course, so we went out, at some expense, to hire a highly qualified young PhD from outside the University to serve as a teaching assistant for that course. The UAW filed a grienvance on the grounds that we were required by the contract to offer it to one of our graduate students. They weren’t interested in the fact that we had no student who was actually qualified to assist in the course. The arbitrator threw out the grievance, but not before a number of faculty had wasted hours preparing documents and so forth. The experience also made us realize that it could easily happen that we would one day encounter an arbitrator who understood universities less well than this one did, and that that would permanently affect the University’s right to decide who was and who was not qualified to teach or assist in a particular course.

This really is breathtaking logic. On the one hand, we have a greivance procedure that might require someone in the philosophy department to occasionally explain their decisions to someone. And, while the arbitrator offered an administration-friendly decision this time, there’s no guarantee they always will in the future!.

There’s much, much more to this appalling story. That thread is full of a host of anti-TA union classics, including “Graduate student teaching is part of your professional development, therefore it just can’t be a job” and “if you count the tuition waiver as part of your salary, TAs are extraordinarily well paid” and so on.

I’m far from convinced the greivence procedure is the driving issue for the administration (especially given that their attempt to bust the union went hand in hand with a significant benefits reduction. Still, I’ll grant that it is the reason Velleman and Boghossian support the administration. Still, it’s hard to take Boghossian seriously when he assures us of his “pro-labor” credentials. When on the one hand you’re weighing the loss of benefits, unethical and career threatening union-busting tactics, and the democratic right to organize and form a union, and on the other hand, a greivance procedure that’s a bit more expansive than you think it should be (which the administration didn’t even bother to try to renegotiate), and you come to the conclusion the latter is a greater concern, it’s awfully hard to take your “pro-labor” protestations seriously.

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