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Pickets Get Personal

Bennett Baumer Jan 13, 2006

Indy.PicketsGet 1When the spring semester at New York University begins on Jan. 17, several hundred striking graduate student workers will be back on the picket line. The fall semester ended with a series of large demonstrations by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC).

The conflict has turned increasingly personal. At the end of the semester, GSOC members changed tactics and cut back picket lines to focus on leafletting and picketing NYU events. On Dec. 19, striking graduate students handed out fliers and temporarily disrupted NYU President John Sexton’s address by unfurling a banner at a NYU town hall meeting. Sexton had earlier announced at an August town hall meeting that NYU would not negotiate a second contract with the graduate student worker union. When the graduate students began chanting, on cue, a pack of meaty NYU security guards burst into the meeting from a back hallway.

“What you are seeing is what happens in a community of ideas when you enter an organization of mistrust,” said Sexton, as GSOC members tried to drown him out.

Sexton was noticeably agitated by the graduate students; his voice strained and his face reddened when audience members asked him about alleged surveillance by security guards. Graduate students at the meeting claimed that the guards had photographed students picketing in front of Bobst Library. When the strike began in November, faculty became angry when administrators signed on to “the blackboard” as instructors. The blackboard is an online communication system and forum for professors and students.

Sexton said any allegation of surveillance by the university was “charged” and that “to my knowledge, there is no surveillance.”

While NYU administrators stressed that the town hall meeting was an open forum for dialogue, many in the audience felt they were shut out. About half of those who attended were worried that NYU expansion into the Village would further destroy the character of the area. NYU plans to build a 26-story dorm on 12th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. During questioning, one Village resident shouted from the back, “This is an entirely fraudulent presentation!”

When classes begin later this month, GSOC members have promised a loud and raucous rally to kick things off. Also, professors will be moving classes off campus and grades from last semester “have been seriously compromised because people who were supposed to be doing instruction,were not,” according to GSOC spokeswoman Susan Valentine. She said many classes were converted to pass/fail. Graduate student workers are resolved to see the dispute out, but the strike has put a strain on them.

“It’s a stressful situation for strikers and non-strikers to interact,” said Holly Lewis, one of two MFA students on strike in the Creative Writing department. “I’m outside striking for [non-striking grad students’] conditions, and they are the ones afraid to lose their jobs.”