Sticks and Stones

The values of the NYU AWDU caucus are again on full display in the recent story entitled “Grad students challenge union on the meaning of ‘work.’” That framing of the issue happens to be totally inaccurate: the dispute is not over what counts as work but instead who counts as a union member. There are unfortunately many workers in this world who are not represented by a union in collective bargaining. The issue between Local 2110 and the NYU AWDU caucus is whether individuals who are not represented by UAW Local 2110 in collective bargaining can nevertheless be considered “members” for the purposes of internal elections. This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are abstractly workers or not, but only whether they can be considered “members” when they do not work or pay dues under a Local 2110 contract.

There happen to be a number of statements in the article that can easily be shown to be false on the basis of publicly available evidence, including the claim that only teaching assistants are represented by our union. But I am more interested in the statements of my NYU AWDU colleagues Chris Nickell and Claudia Carrera.

The article states, “Chris Nickell, GSOC’s communications head, said GSOC members are ‘alienated from our labor’ as other unit members are not.” That’s interesting because a Marxist would say that all labor in capitalism is alienated. Alienation isn’t an emotion or psychological state (although it may be reflected in these) but instead an objective circumstance. It’s unclear to me what Nickell could possibly have meant by this.

Nickell continues, “The rhetoric of class and education is a problematic one…We [graduate students at NYU] are as working class, if not more working class, than clerical workers. We make less money, point blank. We are structurally in a less advantageous position as they are, point blank.”

It is tempting to ask just how structurally advantaged or disadvantaged the speaker of these comments may have personally been in his life, but this would be an absurd argument no matter who was making it. First, many of the other workers in Local 2110 actually make the same or less money than graduate students who teach. An NYU graduate student who teaches during both semesters and the summer and who also receives a stipend makes about $45,000 per year. Of course, we don’t teach every single semester or year, but that is our annualized income during the periods of time when we are covered by a UAW Local 2110 contract, and I’m sure there are plenty of workers in Local 2110 who make less than that (I have no idea what proportion, and I don’t really care). Of course, hourly research assistants or graduate assistants covered by the GSOC contract who make $15 or $16 per hour don’t earn nearly as much, but they are not the focus of the story.

Anyway I hope that this is pretty obviously a totally preposterous class analysis of U.S. society. Access to elite educational institutions in the United States is overwhelmingly skewed along class lines. Many of the most active people in GSOC went to schools like Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill as undergraduates. I went to Princeton. This doesn’t mean we aren’t workers or part of the working class, and I’m not even arguing that we’re less working class, whatever that would mean, but I would confidently bet that on the whole graduate students who teach at NYU are much more likely than the average worker to have grown up in favorable or even very favorable class circumstances.

Again, none of this has anything to do with the issue between Local 2110 and the NYU AWDU caucus, which concerns whether individuals who do not work under a union contract or pay dues can nevertheless be considered union members. Union membership isn’t a moral hierarchy between workers based on how “working class” they are or whether what they do is really work. It’s a legal and political status connected to collective bargaining between a union and an employer.

Unfortunately, the article does not limit itself to mischaracterizing this as some kind of psychological or metaphysical issue. It also resorts to vicious stereotypes about union workers, stating, “During the April meeting, some members of other units jeered and cursed at the graduate students, and one lost patience with the discussion, saying she had to get home, and asked for a vote to be called.”

These words paint a picture of the Joint Council of Local 2110 as an unruly, disorderly mob. I was pained to read them because, as someone who has attended Joint Council meetings for years, I have found them among the most consistently inspiring experiences of my life while in graduate school. Workers who may have access to fewer political “spaces” than do graduate students at NYU speak of the uplifting solidarity they find there. UAW Local 2110 members who attend Joint Council meetings are courageous, principled, and intelligent people who choose to dedicate their time to building and maintaining a strong union that has played a vital role in many national struggles including the fight for collective bargaining rights for graduate student workers. Before my NYU AWDU colleagues came along the vibe of these meetings was extremely supportive and positive. My NYU AWDU colleagues’ attempts to portray these individuals as union thugs is as morally reprehensible as their recent characterization of fellow graduate students as Zionist conspirators.

I attended the Joint Council meeting described in the sentence above. It was tense. One worker cursed at Chris Nickell, who had interrupted when someone else was speaking. That worker shouldn’t have done this, and the President of the Local who was chairing the meeting immediately told him to stop. Many workers were vocally annoyed by the amount of time the discussion was taking. The worker who “lost patience with the discussion” had a long commute home, and it was already almost eight o’clock at night when she called for the vote. There is nothing wrong with calling for a vote, as often happens in our own Assembly of Stewards meetings when discussion of a particular topic is taking too long.

On the other hand, my colleagues in the NYU AWDU caucus also came off as extremely condescending and adversarial to many Local 2110 members who attended the meeting. Workers seemed especially hurt and offended when the NYU AWDU caucus asked that the meeting be paused so that they could caucus among themselves, as if this were contract negotiations with an employer rather than a democratic decision-making process among workers in solidarity with one another. Members of the NYU AWDU caucus now routinely compare the democratically elected leadership of UAW Local 2110 to management. Of course workers whose dues and activism have been central to winning our collective bargaining rights were shocked and dismayed to be treated as the enemy.

Instead of expressing respect for her fellow union members, Carrera’s comments in the article add fuel to the fire. She states, and the article uncritically repeats, that a fall meeting “turned into an hour and a half of people standing and pointing and shouting at us.” I did not attend that meeting, and as someone who has been in the minority at many more union meetings than has Carrera I know that it doesn’t feel good. But I am getting a little tired of this narrative of graduate student victimhood at the hands of the big bad workers in Local 2110, and I’ve seen too many false accusations to lend much credence to this one.

Carrera alludes to “differences in role and population” between NYU graduate students and other workers in Local 2110. It’s probably pretty obvious what “population” means, but let’s just say it: many, sometimes a majority of the workers who attend a Local 2110 Joint Council meeting are Black, whereas to my knowledge no elected leader in GSOC is currently Black. I don’t see why this was any more relevant for Carrera to bring up in connection with a dispute about membership eligibility than Chris’s comparison about who is “more working class.” Carrera also states that the Joint Council meetings are “structured by the executive board for mass aggression against our unit.” I assure her that the negative responses of other Local 2110 members to her and her colleagues’ actions are very real and not something the Executive Board magically whipped up. The conjunction of Carrera’s comment about “population” with her comment characterizing the Local 2110 Joint Council as an aggressive, irrationally angry “mass” is disturbing to me.

Nickell, Carrera, and the rest of the NYU AWDU caucus know that their only leverage for when a majority of Joint Council delegates don’t accept the “reforms” they want to impose is to try to threaten the UAW’s organizing at other campuses, as they are explicitly doing every chance they get. I would have a different approach to strengthening the labor movement, but I also do not believe these vicious attacks will succeed in damaging the national movement to organize adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate student workers. They are sticks and stones, and their targets have survived far worse.





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