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In other Sokal-related news

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, both Alan Sokal and Andrew Ross have signed a letter supporting NYU’s striking graduate students and protesting NYU president John Sexton’s threat—which, by the way, becomes effective today—to withhold a semester’s stipend from any graduate student who does not return to work by December 5 (that’s the “today” part) and to withhold a year’s stipend from any student who returns to a strike next semester.

The full text of the letter reads as follows:

PLEASE HELP US HEAD OFF FIASCO AT NYU

Teaching assistants at NYU conducted a union drive in 1999-2000, won an election, and affiliated with the United Auto Workers (in a local that also includes other educational professionals in NYC such as Museum of Modern Art and New York Historical Society employees). The NYU administration fought hard against the union but was ultimately forced to recognize and negotiate with it by the National Labor Relations Board. There followed a 3 year contract that brought the teaching assistants health benefits and a stipend increase. During this time the university ran quite smoothly.

In the summer of 2005, released from the obligation to negotiate by a new Bush-appointed NLRB, the NYU administration un-recognized the union and has been refusing to negotiate with it. Given this extreme provocation, the union had virtually no alternative but to strike.

They began striking on Nov. 9 and several hundred professors have been teaching off-campus so as not to cross the picket line. The administration—really, President John Sexton—steadily refuses to deal with the union. He has ignored a compromise proposal by a former dean. At one point several administrators infiltrated course websites (using the program “Blackboard") so as to be able to determine which faculty and teaching assistants were supporting the strike; this resulted in widespread faculty outrage and the deans quickly withdrew from that effort.

Now President Sexton has again thrown a bombshell: he has threatened that any TAs who do not return to work by Dec. 5 will be deprived of an entire semester’s stipend and those who dare to return to a strike in the next semester will lose an entire year’s funding.

Such an action would be unprecedented. Graduate student employees have struck at many other universities, including those in the Ivy League and those just as anti-union as the NYU administration, but nowhere have such draconian reprisals ever been taken. Moreover, to date American workers retain a right to strike. While employers may well withhold wages during a strike, punishing strikers for a semester or a year afterward is illegal. The basic disagreement between the students and President Sexton is whether they are workers or not, and his point of view must be reckoned with, but surely the action of assistants who believe that they are workers cannot be criminalized because one disagrees.

If this threatened punishment is allowed to happen it will set a disastrous example for democratic debate at universities throughout the country. It would also cause irreparable harm to the reputation of NYU. We believe it will make it much for difficult for the university to recruit and retain the best faculty and graduate students.

Hundreds of faculty have formed a group, Faculty Democracy, to protest President Sexton’s policy and to push for greater administration consultation with faculty on important decisions—a consultation which, if undertaken seriously, might have prevented this whole debacle.

We urge scholars and intellectuals throughout the country to urge President Sexton to drop his threats and agree to negotiate with the union. He can be reached at 70 Washington Square, NY, NY 10012 and by email at john.sexton@nyu.edu .

Please send a copy of your communication to any sender of this letter.

Thank you,

Linda Gordon, History
Andrew Ross, American Studies
Alan Sokal, Physics
Mary-Louise Pratt, Spanish
writing for the group Faculty Democracy, numbering approximately 250

There’s more on the strike at The Valve, once again courtesy of Jonathan Goodwin.  (And while you’re there, check out the post immediately prior to Jonathan’s, in which Ray Davis sparked a terrific discussion of blacklists and academic freedom.) Jason Stanley, guesting at Brian Leiter’s blog, has even more:  the comment thread runs strongly in favor of the graduate students, but also includes a couple of defenses of NYU’s decision to de-recognize the union from Paul Boghossian and Ned Block, who blame what they see as the UAW’s “abuse” of the labor contract’s grievance procedure.  Those claims are contested in turn by a commenter at the Valve. . . .

My apologies to my friends at NYU for not posting more, and more often, on this strike.  Here’s the petition in support of the students. Please take a moment to sign it if you haven’t already.

Posted by on 12/05 at 11:36 AM
  1. As I said over at my place, you know something big is brewing when Ross and Sokal are standing shoulder-to-shoulder.  It’s like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters.  Matter and anti-matter, except without the end of the world part.

    (All kidding aside, thanks for this post.  It’s hard to watch without thinking “there but for the grace of having graduated seven and a half years ago...")

    Posted by KF  on  12/05  at  06:39 PM
  2. Well, Bruce Robbins and Sokal stood together a couple of years ago in a drive to protest Sharon’s policies.  Although kibbitzed by Will and Limbaugh, the whole Affaire Sokal was an internecine “Left” conflict among people with shared values; it’s heartening that the participants haven’t ceased to be aware of that.

    Posted by  on  12/06  at  12:59 AM
  3. Great cause. I’ll be checking out the petition right now so I can support this cause. I’m all for keeping democracy alive and well.

    Posted by Jackson  on  01/19  at  04:46 PM

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