Faculty Should Stay out of Graduate Worker Union Politics

Jacob Denz

Last week, my union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, held a referendum concerning the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) the state of Israel, as well as elections for steward positions and Joint Council delegates in the larger local union to which we belong. These two separate votes were needlessly conflated when the NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union caucus falsely suggested that the election by acclamation of some candidates who oppose BDS amounted to an attempt to “silence support for BDS.” In fact, individuals were disqualified from serving in elected positions because they have never been dues-paying members of the union.

Unfortunately, several dozen faculty from mostly humanities and social science departments have signed a statement affirming the AWDU caucus’ version of events despite the total absence of any evidence to support it. This case demonstrates the dangers of faculty intervention in the internal affairs of a union of graduate student workers. Faculty are not familiar with the many intricate details of our union. They do not adjudicate disputes among different groups of graduate student workers, and it is not their place to do so. Faculty and graduate student workers are not on an equal plane but instead exist in a hierarchical and often managerial relationship. This does not mean faculty and graduate workers cannot also be close colleagues or even friends. However, faculty, especially tenured faculty, are representatives of our employer. A union exists primarily as institution separate from our management for both graduate students and other workers  represented by GSOC to fight for justice together.

Members of the NYU AWDU caucus take the position that GSOC has unit autonomy with regard to membership eligibility. Graduate student workers along with most other workers in our local union take distinct positions. These are the perspectives that should determine this internal union matter, not the judgments of tenured faculty, however progressive they may be and however much we appreciate the support they have shown for our rights to collectively bargain.
Their encouragement of their colleagues to remain neutral regarding graduate student workers’ decisions about whether to be represented by a union was instructive. Leading up to our “union yes” election in December 2013, a neutrality agreement with NYU — including faculty — was a hard-won concession that helped protect graduate student workers from coercion on the part of anti-union professors. Faculty members who truly want to support us in building a strong union should similarly encourage their colleagues to remain neutral regarding the internal affairs of Local 2110. Statements taking sides in internal union politics can only silence graduate student workers who fear retribution for departing from faculty members’ views, and this is the real threat to union democracy.

Jacob Denz is a member of the Graduate Students Organizing Committee.

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