Teaching Assistants Plan a ‘Sick-Out’ Strike

Members of Sick-Out NYU plan to take a three-day strike to advocate for graduate students’ rights during the pandemic.

This week, NYU TAs may stop teaching in protest. Sick-Out NYU released a list of demands for NYU administration to address in order to provide for students and workers. (Photo by Jessica Francis)

NYU Teaching Assistants plan to collectively take three consecutive sick days starting Wednesday, May 6 to demonstrate their essential role at the university and protest NYU’s lack of support for graduate students. 

The strike will be orchestrated by Sick-Out NYU, a group of master’s and doctoral students aiming to gain more support from the school administration as graduate students face the end of funding for their research — or, in the case of international students, visa cancellations — during the pandemic.

Doctoral student Jackson Smith is an organizer of Sick-Out NYU who plans to participate in the action later this week.

“From our perspective, they’ve failed to address this crisis, or even have a full understanding of what this crisis means for graduate students,” Smith said. “It will be impossible for some of us to return to NYU in the fall. Without a guaranteed extension of funding, the only people who’ll be able to finish their degrees will be those with independent wealth.”

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Graduate students involved in the NYU COVID Coalition released an open letter to Provost Fleming on Tuesday, March 31, which outlined a set of demands. Among the demands were emergency summer funding, a one-year extension of time-to-degree deadlines for all graduate students and waiver of fees for all graduate students.

Sick-Out’s demands support the ones listed in the letter and add that the university should end the school’s hiring freeze and assist international students with housing and visa issues.

If Sick-Out’s demands are not responded to and met by Tuesday, May 5, participating graduate students will use their sick days on May 6, 7 and 8.

“This action we’re taking is simply calling in sick with guaranteed sick days we have in our contracts,” Smith said. “We’re using it to call attention to the iniquities that have emerged in the wake of this crisis, not only for graduates but undergrads who are paying tuition for online instruction that is not equal or sufficient to what they’d normally receive.”

The Sick-Out intends to show the university how difficult it will be for undergraduate classes — many of which rely on TAs — to operate normally if graduate students are unable to return to NYU next semester.

“Many graduate students will not be able to continue with their studies,” Smith said. “The university, I don’t think, comprehends that it’s threatening its own ability to function going into the fall.”

Negar Taymoorzadeh, an international doctoral student, explained the precarious position she’s in without assistance from NYU. She was doing research in Germany this semester and therefore is not a TA, but fully supports the goals of Sick-Out.

“My U.S. visa has expired,” she said. “The embassies are closed, I’m running out of funding in May and that means there’s no point applying for an extension to even be considered for a visa. We don’t get funding for the summer, and in the middle of this crisis we don’t have money for rent past June. We need more time, and funding is essential to our visa status.”

Tisch graduate student and member of the NYU COVID Coalition, Zane Liston, is in full support of the goals of Sick-Out.

“I think what they’re saying about international students hiring freeze affected us greatly,” Liston said. “The first steps our department took was to hire as many people as possible as research assistants, but two days later the hiring freeze was implemented.”

Liston sees the hiring freeze as a particularly harmful aspect of NYU’s response to the current economic crisis.

“Graduate students that are graduating this year are especially hurt by COVID,” Liston said. “We’re about to go into the worst employment field in the history of America. Department-by-department lifting of hiring freezes would change our lives right now.”

With so many students in dire straits, many see the demands that Sick-Out is fighting for as a lifeline.

“We are in a pandemic right now,” Smith said. “It sends a strong message to show how, beyond COVID-19, NYU’s response — or lack of response, as we see it — also makes us sick.”

NYU spokesperson John Beckman responded to the plans laid out by Sick-Out.

“The University is sympathetic to adverse situations that COVID-19 has caused for many in the University, including graduate students,” Beckman told WSN in a statement. “Nevertheless, a job action by graduate workers would be a violation of the contract they signed and agreed to.” 

Beckman also addressed the financial strain COVID-19 has inflicted on the University.

“We would ask that all members of the community be mindful of the reality that the University itself is in financial straits unlike those seen in decades, and even as there may be new challenges and needs, resources are far scarcer,” he said.

Smith disagreed with the university’s official stance. 

“I understand that there’s a financial crisis that’s been instigated by [COVID-19],” Smith said. “The fact of the matter is, NYU has $1.9 billion in assets and has not imposed any salary cuts on the highest earning administrators, such as President Hamilton. The austerity burden is falling on grad students and NYU can afford it. It’s a matter of will, not a matter of financial restraint.”

Correction, May 5: An earlier version of this article misattributed the organizers of an open letter written to Provost Fleming and previously cited an anonymous source who has agreed to be identified after publication. This article has been updated and WSN regrets the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 4th, 2020 e-print edition. Email Nick Mead at [email protected]

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