Obama's Union-Busting New Chief of Staff? Jacob Lew Helped Destroy Grad Students' Union at NYU
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In a memo the next day, Lew and McLaughlin informed the public that “the university will not negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.” Lew and McLaughlin wrote that NYU had always maintained as a “core principle” that “graduate assistants are students, not workers,” but had accepted GSOC’s 2001 union recognition vote based on “the UAW’s representation that it would respect the University’s discretion on academic matters.”
They charged that GSOC had abused the contract’s grievance procedure to interfere with “academic decision-making,” and warned that “if even one arbitrator had sided with the UAW in any of these decisions, it would have had a profound impact on our faculty’s academic rights and ultimately the academic quality of the institution.”
“It is both disingenuous and risible,” American Association of University Professors President Jane Buck later retorted, “to assert that the mentoring relationship is harmed by good faith negotiations about salaries, benefits, and access to fair grievance procedures.” GSOC, while defending the merits of the grievances, had offered three months earlier to drop all of them, and to include language broadening management’s discretion in a new contract. (NYU did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Our membership, which had been covered by a contract that provided all kinds of rights and benefits, lost that contract, and has had to organize from scratch,” says Rosenstein.
Following Lew and McLaughlin’s e-mail, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney joined GSOC activists in civil disobedience on August 31, the final day of their contract. In November of 2005, GSOC went on strike to win back union recognition. On its first day, picketers held “Wanted” posters with Lew and McLaughlin’s faces. Lew told a campus paper that “it would be a mistake for anyone to draw conclusions” based on the first day of the strike. “It would be wrong to say nothing is going to happen; it would be wrong to say the place is going to be paralyzed.”
In The University Against Itself, GSOC activist Susan Valentine wrote that NYU campaigned against GSOC with “classic techniques such as interference from supervisors (faculty, in this case) and the threat–and fulfillment–of firings.” Several aspects of the campaign, Valentine charged, would have been illegal had workers been covered under the Labor Relations Act. Some faculty complained after discovering on the strike’s first day that NYU administrators were logged in as “observers” on the “virtual classroom” website Blackboard, which could be used to assess which teaching assistants were on strike. GSOC members said they were questioned about their union activity by supervisors.
In the strike’s third week, NYU issued the first of a series of threats that graduate students who remained on strike would be denied work and payment for future semesters. Over a hundred international students sent Sexton a letter charging that such threats were putting them at risk of deportation. During the first two months of 2006, twenty strikers were fired. That spring, NYU created a graduate student government which GSOC charged was another attempt at a “company union.”
“Suddenly the business of the university has become strikebreaking and unionbusting, not education,” wrote Cornell’s Kate Bronfenbrenner in January 2006.
The strike drew vocal support from major unions, politicians, and academics. But when the strike ended in May 2006, GSOC had not won recognition. The next month, Lew left NYU to become COO of Citigroup Global Wealth Management.
Jared Bernstein, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former Chief Economist for Vice President Joe Biden, told the L.A. Times Friday that Lew is "a mild-mannered guy, but if you want to see him fight, put him in a position where he's protecting disadvantaged people and he'll go to the mat. That's something you don't see enough of at that level of power."