Letter to the Editor: The NYU YDSA tuition strike laid the foundation for future organizing

Despite the obstacles to organizing at a school like NYU, YDSA’s tuition strike proved that students are willing to take action to demand the university they deserve. A response to “NYU YDSA strikes out,” Nov. 12.

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Alexandra Chan

The cancellation of YDSA’s tuition strike should not be viewed as a failure. Rather, it shows the lengths that students are willing to go to demand action from the university. (Staff Photo by Alexandra Chan)

By Jake Colosa, Contributing Writer

Last week, a WSN opinion piece argued that the NYU Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter’s failed tuition strike “did not demonstrate the same resolve or organization” as organizing efforts from students in the past. As a former co-chair of NYU YDSA who announced the tuition strike on the Graduate Student Organizing Committee’s picket line, I wanted to offer my thoughts on some of the claims made in that article.

The central argument of the piece is that the tuition strike only included students who paid the full cost of tuition each year. As a result, the article argued that the strike excluded large portions of the student body — particularly working-class students — which led to its inevitable failure. While it was never NYU YDSA’s intention to exclusively organize students who do not have financial aid or loans, the tuition strike FAQ referenced in the article is ambiguous at best on this question — so I’d like to clarify.

As the FAQ states in section seven: “Students who pay for tuition with student loans or scholarships … cannot participate directly in the strike.” When we planned the tuition strike, we decided not to advise students to refuse financial aid awards. We were concerned that students who declined their aid may not get it in future semesters, or that they would be unable to use their aid to pay tuition if we voted to end the strike in the middle of the semester. For similar reasons, as well as a lack of conclusive research, we also advised students who pay most or all of their tuition with loans to avoid canceling or withholding them.

But these recommendations were not an attempt to exclude working-class students. After all, many NYU YDSA members rely on financial aid or loans to pay for their education — one of our campaign coordinators even experienced homelessness while organizing the tuition strike. Instead, the recommendations were born out of a desire to protect low-income students from retaliation by NYU.

The article takes this recommendation — that students avoid canceling financial aid and student loans — to mean that only students who pay tuition completely out-of-pocket could participate.

As the CNBC article referenced in the opinion piece notes, 51% of NYU students receive an average of $29,480 of financial aid. Therefore, many NYU students who don’t pay full cost could still have withheld a portion of tuition dollars. For example, I could withhold the remaining $3,000-4,000 of my semester’s bill that I pay after my financial aid, federal student loans and RA stipend. While our resources for students certainly should have been more clear, it is inaccurate to say that only students who pay $80,000 a year could participate in the strike.

The opinion piece goes on to criticize tuition strikes as a tactic because they do not ask participants to risk their financial or physical wellbeing in the same way that a labor strike or direct action does. It is completely true that the risks involved in each of these tactics are different, and that tuition strikes have a relatively lower risk than the others. Last semester my coworkers and I, undergraduate TAs in the General Engineering 10003 class at NYU Tandon, went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions.

Without the formal structure and deep organization of a union, the strike was difficult to maintain and rapidly burnt out organizers. A similar strike with undergraduate workers on a university-wide level would require years of organization. This isn’t to say that it cannot or should not happen, only that it was not within NYU YDSA’s capacity when we launched our tuition strike.

NYU YDSA voted to organize a tuition strike to minimize physical risk to students while putting financial pressure on NYU (tuition accounts for as much as 57% of NYU’s budget). We applaud the courage of student activists who have risked their lives for the causes they believe in and honor the memory of the students who were murdered at Kent State, but physically endangering yourself is not the only way to be an activist.

The point of collective action is to mobilize the masses against the institutions that hold power over them. The goal of a tuition strike, then, is not only to win our demands, but also to call NYU students to action in uniting behind a more egalitarian vision of what our university could be. 

Despite all of this, a tuition strike does have real risks for the participants, particularly around their ability to complete their degrees. NYU’s arrears policy is significantly stricter than Columbia’s, where students would not be unenrolled from their classes for refusing to pay. While Columbia retaliated against YDSA strike organizers by locking them out of their school Google Workspace accounts during finals week, threatening their ability to complete their coursework, NYU’s policy allows it to take even stronger measures.

Why do universities resort to these intimidation tactics? Because they know that tuition strikes, like all collective action, are built on solidarity. If only a fraction of the students who pledged to strike had withheld their tuition, they could have easily been targeted by NYU administration. Due to a number of factors, including our own organizing shortcomings, it became clear to NYU YDSA that we would not be able to guarantee that a critical mass of students would withhold tuition, leaving those who did vulnerable to retaliation. This was the main reason that led us to vote to end the strike.

In spite of the tuition strike’s failure, NYU YDSA is proud of the commitment we made to organize students across campus. We are taking the remaining weeks of the semester to reflect on our year of organizing. As an organization committed to democracy, we welcome those who did not support the strike to organize alongside us and help us come back even stronger in the future. By working to support GSOC’s strike and coordinating our campaigns — including adding tuition remission for master’s student workers to our demands — we have strengthened our relationship with GSOC and are excited for the prospects of future labor organizing at NYU.

Student organizers will never win every campaign they run, but in responding to criticism, NYU YDSA is excited to use this failure as an opportunity to strengthen — and win — our future campaigns.

Jake Colosa is a member of NYU’s YDSA chapter and the YDSA National Coordinating Committee.

Contact Jake Colosa at [email protected]