Workers vs. Zombies: NYU grad students are on a sick-out to save (and reimagine) the university

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This week, NYU joins the ignominious, growing list of highly-funded universities facing labor actions and rent strikes by their teaching staff. Over 450 of NYU’s grad students have pledged to “sick out” for the final week of the semester, cancelling hundreds of classes. More than 110 teaching assistants so far have joined the labor action, and some professors formally suspended classes in support of the sick-out. NYU faculty have also launched a rent strike partly in solidarity with student-workers and other NYU workers.  

The organized sick-out seeks to save NYU from crumbling under the weight of its predatory habits: the university is failing to see its own crisis. Administrators have ignored urgent calls for COVID crisis support signed by over 1200 NYU organizations and community members. They said they’d reply in a few months: in COVID time, that’s next century. Meanwhile, NYU’s president and provost send excruciatingly meaningless messages of care to grad student workers.  

But “take care” does not begin to address the crisis. One international student, for instance, is stuck in the US without income, unable to renew their visa without next year’s NYU contract, unable to return home to Egypt because of closed borders, and about to lose their apartment. Others who were at NYU’s vaunted international satellite campuses are now stuck abroad without income. NYU has ejected undergrads from their housing, ostensibly to disinfect for nonexistent “summer classes.” Student groups have desperately cobbled together lists of spare couches (few of those exist in a pandemic). Like so many others, graduate workers are now faced with caring for children, elderly and vulnerable family members.  

Under the conditions that NYU has created, many graduate student workers will not be able to return to NYU in Fall -- and if we do, we’ll be forced to undertake more and longer labor stoppages. We’re also confronted with the velvet-roping of universities, where only independently wealthy students can pursue research and educational advancement. By refusing to provide material support, NYU is ensuring that the COVID crisis deepens inequity for generations more. And just as a new freshman class signs on for another $300,000-per-person education, the university is gutting itself.  

In turning to austerity and discipline, instead of leveraging its massive resources to hold the institution together, NYU isn’t alone. The same is happening in New York City, where the mayor has closed down subways to purge homeless people rather than open hotel rooms, and refuses to end racist, punitive policing and carceral practices that are exacerbating the crisis. At Amazon, Walmart, and other behemoth institutions, low-paid but “essential” workers are striking for survivable work conditions, while companies rake in astronomical crisis profits. Having absorbed the story that institutions must be defended against the needs of those who populate them, bosses can’t imagine using  institutional resources to foster the community’s survival. (Our sick-out is a wildcat action for the same reasons. Our union contract includes a no-strike clause, but the crisis demands that we organize ourselves in new ways.)  

Solidarity is building that fundamentally aims to save universities from such destructive, abusive management. Graduate student workers across the University of California system, at Columbia, and many other schools are taking action. All of us are low-paid workers, but we’re challenging universities’ pretense that we’re merely contract labor. Our universities are our landlords and our health insurance providers: like a company store, we are obliged to pay in while the university controls essential resources in our lives.  

NYU benefits from our dependence on the university for housing and healthcare. Like other universities, the glittering promises of access and global citizenship used to sell high-priced education to undergrads are built on the teaching and support labor of poorly paid graduate students (in addition to other precarious workers from contingent faculty to operational staff.) In order to recruit us to provide low-wage labor to teach expensive classes, the university makes assurances of housing, work, and immigration status -- although they are not listed in our contracts. NYU made itself the company store, and now it has defaulted.  

Accordingly, graduate student workers as well as contingent faculty are increasingly striking against universities as landlords as well as employers. The university’s role in governing the material resources of our lives is inseparable from our role as workers there -- and at present, all of its conditions are unsurvivable.  

NYU can absolutely afford to bridge this crisis. As part of the massive federal bailout for industries struggling to keep afloat amidst COVID-19, NYU is slated to get an estimated $25 million for recovery; the second highest grant to any private university. After weeks of pushing NYU to explain its plan for CARES Act funding (it received 25 million and was only obligated to spend 50% on emergency grants to students), they announced on May 6 that 100% would go towards emergency funds. This is a major win for NYU’s COVID Coalition and #SickoutNYU. NYU would have loved to spend that money elsewhere; now we hope to see it lift the $500 cap it has placed on the amount of funding a student can receive, which is embarrassingly inadequate.  

NYU also has substantial funding of its own. Its endowment holds an estimated $4.3 billion, over $9 billion in net assets, a massive real estate expansion fund, and sweetheart loan deals that it could draw on. High-level administrators at NYU also get inflated and unprecedented salaries: NYU president Andy Hamilton makes $1.9 million dollars. While other businesses and universities have cut top-level salaries to fund crisis resources, NYU has refused.  

NYU’s existing funding all remains locked away. Administrators who proudly advertised large endowments for the sake of college rankings are now crassly downplaying them, saying they’re untouchable. The university is rich for recruitment and expansion, but out of money when it comes to providing support for the grad student teachers on whose labor NYU runs. Meanwhile, NYU recruiters continue to bank on the story that a degree will help students overcome inequities across race, gender, and class.  

We are fighting zombies. Many of us in quarantine are thinking about how the world must be rewritten so that the resources we depend on, from housing and food to science and communal safety, are accountably shared. We cannot countenance the lethal hoarding of goods, cash, or power that have made the COVID crisis exponentially more disastrous in the United States. Our sick-out at NYU demands just such a rewriting now. NYU cannot close the company store, lock grad student workers out of their homes and jobs, abandon and strand them around the globe, while sitting on billions of dollars. It cannot revive itself later -- or worse, “return to normal” -- by finding a new crop of grad students who are promised housing, jobs, health care, and someday “advancement.” We’re here now, together, ready to move.