Friday, January 06, 2006

MLA Conflict over NYU Strike

Last week I attended the MLA, the largrest professional organization for academics in modern languages, where the biggest conflict was over a Radical Caucus’s emergency resolution to support the graduate students’ strike at NYU led by Graduate Students Organizing Committee/Local 2110 UAW (GSOC).

In 2000 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate students at private universities who teach sections at their colleges have the right to unionize (graduate students at public universities like UC and University of Michigan already have that right and are unionized). Then NYU recognized GSOC union for its graduate students who teach and signed a first contract in 2002; GSOC helped get its members a raise in pay to $19,000 and better health benefits. But in July 2004 the NLRB, which had Bush appointees, reversed itself on a 3-2 party line vote, saying graduate students at private universities like NYU don’t have the right to unionize. NYU then rescinded its recognition of GSOC, refusing to recognize the union’s grievance procedure, and basically tried to destroy the union, so November 9 GSOC went out on strike.

NYU President John Sexton sent a November 28 email ordering striking students to return to work December 5. If they didn’t, he threatened striking students with loss of their spring semester stipends (their jobs); further, if they took any work action in the spring, they would lose their jobs for the next two semesters. Faced with much pressure in terms of emails and letters, Sexton postponed the December 5 deadline, but it still hangs there, threatening graduate students with loss of jobs and a blacklist. Under the 2000 NLRB ruling, NYU’s action of reprisals against unionists on strike is illegal, but now under the 2002 NLRB ruling NYU’s actions are technically “legal” but clearly unethical.

Bill Mullen of the Radical Caucus brought an Emergency Resolution in support of GSOC, and at the MLA meeting of the Delegates Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC) on December 28th , anybody who has resolutions or motions discusses them with DAOC before the actual Delegates Assembly (DA). Well, we members of GSOC, the Radical Caucus, and other pro-trade unionists all argued for the emergency resolution. I was there as a member of the Radical Caucus. Also, I’ve a staunch trade-unionist, having founded a trade union local once. The Radical Caucus more than any other group in the MLA has supported trade union rights for academics, particlarly non-tenure track, part-timers, and graduate students. Furthermore, my dad was a graduate of NYU. Since the MLA had already passed Motion 1999-11 supporting unionization of graduate students at both private and public universities in 2000, we thought the Emergency Resolution would pass.

At the December 28 meeting DAOC members told us that the MLA Constitution had a new amendment saying emergency resolutions “shall not name individuals or institutions in such a way that, in the determination of the committee, a response from the named party must be sought.” If persons or an institution are named, then the MLA must have the time (unspecified) to ask them for a reply, but since the DA was to vote on all resolutions within 24 hours on December 29th, there was no time to get a reply.

After some debate, Michael Berube of DAOC proposed a compromise that the Radical Caucus revise their resolution, removing the clause that said NYU threatening sanctions against GSOC, and ask the MLA to reaffirm it’s two earlier motions supporting unionization of all graduate students. The Radical Caucus accepted Berube’s compromise for a more moderate motion urging all universities to bargain in good faith with graduate student unions and adding words to reaffirm their previous motions endorsing graduate student unions.

During the December 28th meeting members of DAOC repeatedly urged the Radical Caucus to drop its emergency resolution and instead ask the Executive Council, the small elected ruling body of the MLA, to take action supporting the NYU strikers. Druing the lively debate that occurred DAOC members said an emergency resolution isn’t really “emergency” as first it has to be voted on by the DA on December 29th, next goes to the Executive Committee who ensures the resolutions aren’t libelous or untruthful, next the membership of MLA votes on them and only then eleven months later in November, 2006, would the emergency resolution take place.

But we wanted to go forward, taking the emergency resolution to the DA the next day. People felt that if the DA would pass a pro-NYU strikers motion, it would help immediately the strikers, some of whom were seated there. The strikers might lose their jobs within weeks, and we wanted to give them support. That afternoon DAOC had a meeting to give it’s opinion on the resolutions.

Next day the Delegates Assembly took place in a large ballroom at the Marriott in Northwest Washington D.C. The elected delegates sent in the front of a ballroom while the non-elected (again GSOC strikers were there, members of the Radical Caucus, and, of course, other interested MLA members) sat in the back of the room with the Executive Council (EC) members at the front podium. Bill Mullen again introduced the revised NYU emergency resolution that was a compromise. Next Michelle Massé of DAOC said they had “a prolonged, intense and deeply divisive discussion” in their meeting and they had deadlocked: some members believed that NYU should have the chance to respond to the revised resolution while others thought that a response from NYU wasn’t needed

Next the parliamentarian ruled the NYU emergency resolution was out of order for a second reason: Robert’s Rules of Order forbid organizations from voting to reaffirm previous actions. Since the Emergency Resolution asks the MLA delegates to reaffirm its two previous pro-union motions, it is 100% out of order. It would be too confusing for a organization to get a chance to not affirm its previous resolutions, so any resolution asking them for such a vote is void.

Again, many people spoke at the mikes in an passionate debate. One asked if there was any way the NYU emergency resolution could be revised to bring it to a vote. The answer was “no.” Bill Mullen argued that DA is the larger and more representative elected body of the Executive Council, so it should vote on NYU resolution rather than the EC. Cynthia Young, one of the Yale graduate student strikers of that strike a decade ago, said at the 1995 DA the MLA vote to censure Yale during its graduate student strike had an immediate, positive effect to help the strikers, so similar vote for NYU voters would have also have an immediate positive effect. GSOC strikers NYU went to the mike saying how important an MLA resolution would be to them. The answers were again and again the NYU emergency resolution was dead. I got up to speak once as a non-delegate, but the chair ruled that they had run at of time and had to move on to other business.

At the very end of the four-hour meeting, after all other business had been concluded, people were still give their opinions about the NYU strike at the mikes—one for delegates in front and one for non-delegates in back. I and two others from the Radical Caucus lined up to speak (we could only speak for about two minutes). The three of us were standing there when the chair said since the meeting was nearly over non-delegates could no longer speak but only delegates.

Barbara Foley, the Radical Caucus member who was also a delegate, went to the delegates' mike saying she would give her time to let the non-delegates to speak. The chair said, “No.” The chair at the front podium said they could ask the DA as a whole to vote to extend the time of the meeting, but they needed a quorum of 36 votes. Well, 34 delegates present voted 33 to 1 to let us three in the back of the room, but it wasn’t the 36 needed for the quorum, so the chair adjourned the meeting. I never did get a chance to speak at the DA.

What can one conclude from all this? The College Art Association months again passed a resolution to support GSOC union at NYU. The press and others often call the MLA “radical, “left,” or one of the more radical of the academic professional organizations. It isn’t radical at all. The MLA isn't on the left at all. MLA is apolitical.

MLA is basically an organization devoted to scholarship and scholarly publishing which is figuring if it wants to do advocacy on and what kind of advocacy. Some members want advocacy while others do not want it do advocacy at all but concentrate on scholarship, remaining apolitical. Now the MLA is having that debate and will, indeed, debate the topic of MLA and activism at the 2006 DA. I hope that will be a productive discussion.

As for NYU, the right to organize a labor union is a basic human right—and certainly any person should have the right to unionize without fear of losing one’s job or blacklists. All the trade union bloc wanted was for the MLA to reaffirm NYU graduate students' basic human rights to have a union. We tried our best but we failed. I do hope, speaking as an individual, that the Executive Council will soon vote a strong resolution supporting NYU strikers. I also hope that the NYU strikers do not lose their jobs this spring and next year.

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