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NYU: Graduate Students Must Stop Strikes or Lose Stipends

By Karen W. Arenson

New York University issued an ultimatum yesterday to its striking graduate student teaching and research assistants: They must return to classes and other assignments next week or lose their financial stipends and their eligibility to teach next semester. Those who return next week will not be penalized.

“The time has come for the university to insist that the academic needs of its undergraduates be met,” John Sexton, NYU’s president, said in a letter to graduate assistants yesterday in a move to end the strike, which started Nov. 9. “Those undergraduates in classes affected by the strike are understandably anxious about the disruption to their studies. Such disruption must not continue.”

The strike represented an effort by the graduate assistants and their allies, including some professors, to force the university to recognize their right to a union.

They were represented by the United Automobile Workers until August, when the university took advantage of a change in policy by the National Labor Relations Board, which said private universities no longer had to permit graduate students to unionize.

Michael Palm, a striking fifth-year graduate student in American studies and chairman of the graduate student organizing group, said he did not plan to return to teaching until NYU agreed to give graduate assistants a contract.

“Many of our members are outraged over the threats,” he said last night. “But this demonstrates that the administration cannot complete the semester without our labor. They are trying to intimidate our members back to work in time to clean up the semester.”

NYU, which was the first private university to be told to allow the unionization of graduate students, in 2000, said the union had tried to interfere with setting academic policy. It said it would continue to recognize a union only if it would forgo grievances. The union said the university exaggerated the impact of the grievances filed.

The strike resulted in the cancellation of some classes; the university said most were not affected. Neither the university nor the protesters provided a firm count of classes canceled. Classes were affected in other ways, too. Some professors moved classes off campus so they did not have to cross picket lines.

NYU faced complaints from some parents and students. The student newspaper, Washington Square News, reported yesterday on the growing impatience among some teachers and students. It said some professors who had moved classes off campus were moving back.

The university told undergraduates last week that it would make allowances for the disruptions they had faced, allowing them to drop classes without penalty and retake them free during the summer and to switch courses to pass-fail, with a note on their transcripts that they had been affected by the job action.

In his letter, Dr. Sexton said that graduate students who signed up to teach next semester would have to commit to meet their responsibilities without interruption. Unapproved absences, he said, “will result in suspension from assistantship assignments and loss of stipend for the following two consecutive semesters.”

Graduate students who lose their stipends of at least $19,000 a year will be eligible for loans if needed and will continue to receive free tuition and health benefits.