Student-faculty solidarity begins in your classroom

As members of NYU’s adjunct faculty, we were excited to learn that our contract faculty colleagues were unionizing. Last fall, our contract negotiations emphasized the importance of cultivating undergraduate solidarity. Talking to our own students is the best way we have to educate the NYU community. In my experience, students are often eager to learn more about how the university operates, and where their tuition money goes — and doesn’t go.

Next week, hopefully you’ll be wearing a CFU button to class, so students might ask about it. Even if they don’t, look for opportunities to open up an informal discussion at the beginning or end of class: “You may have heard that NYU contract faculty are forming a union. I’d like to talk about it, so that you know what that means, and why we’re doing it.”

Explain to them — or, better, get them to explain — what unions are, why they exist, and how they work. Sketch out some basic facts on the whiteboard:

  • Unions are democratic, self-governing organizations of workers. 
  • Unions equalize the power imbalance between managers and workers through collective bargaining, where workers negotiate as a group to secure better pay, benefits, and working conditions. By organizing in a union, workers gain power that they do not have as individuals in isolation from each other. When workers have power, it brings democracy to the workplace.
  • Basic workplace protections (the eight-hour workday, weekends, child labor laws, minimum wage, etc.) exist only because workers came together to form unions and fight for them. 
  • Thousands of NYU workers are union members: graduate TAs (GSOC-UAW), adjunct faculty (ACT-UAW), clerical staff (UCATS 3882, OPEIU 153), etc.

Students will likely already understand that non-profit universities like NYU are, in many respects, run exactly like any for-profit business: with a view to maximizing the margin between operating costs and revenue, which companies and universities do in large part by spending as little as possible on labor. However, because students don’t pay attention to our titles, they may not know that the NYU administration has been cutting costs by shifting more and more work onto adjunct and contract faculty in recent decades. 

The next part may be uncomfortable, but it’s important: students need to understand that our jobs are fundamentally insecure, and that we are often paid less than our tenured peers for doing more of the same work. One way to do this is just to explain what makes your job different from that of a tenure-track colleague in your school or department. You may worry that acknowledging this difference amounts to a loss of face in the eyes of your students — but the experience of unionized adjunct faculty and grad workers shows that students are much more likely to be indignant when they learn that the NYU administration is taking advantage of their teachers. 

Students shouldn’t be indignant only on our behalf, but also on their own. When faculty organize to protect our jobs and improve our working conditions, we’re not just acting in self-interest, we’re working to uphold NYU’s educational mission and defend academic freedom. Faculty insecurity has empowered the NYU administration to make unilateral decisions about the way we research and learn here, and administrators have chosen to charge more and more tuition each year, while diverting more and more of those dollars away from the actual work of teaching and learning. Those choices harm our students as much as they harm us.

If you like, you can let students know about two events next week: one is a teach-in organized by CLAWS, the student-led labor coalition on campus, on Thursday evening, 3/23, at 6pm; the other is the annual commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on Friday, 3/24, from 11-1:30. 

As teachers, we are always mindful of the power dynamics in our classrooms, and you may feel uncomfortable even suggesting that students take action on your behalf. It’s useful to emphasize that you’re not asking them to take or express an opinion on whether or not contract faculty should have a union. Rather, you’re making sure they’re informed about an important issue that affects their education, and explaining why you want the NYU administration to get out of the way of contract faculty’s democratic choice by agreeing to a fair process to decide the question.

As you continue to demand a fair and neutral process for recognizing your union, know that your adjunct colleagues are standing with you in solidarity. Talking openly with students about the conditions that prompted your organizing can help ensure that when it matters, they’re standing with you too.

In solidarity,

Gordon Beeferman
Andy Eicher
Charles Gelman
Jess Haskins
Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Marguerite Lukes
Colette Mazzucelli
David Palmer
Monica Panzarino
Judith Sloan
Proud members of ACT-UAW 7902