The almost two-day student occupation at New York University around demands of transparency and accountability has ended but the dialogue set in motion by the action is just beginning. Also just beginning is the University’s punitive measures against participants in the occupation – measures clearly designed to have a chilling effect on future dissent.
Eighteen students have reportedly been suspended and face expulsion. To maximize hardship, NYU and its President John Sexton have gone so far as to evict several students from university housing. It’s also believed that NYU is working closely with the New York City Police Department toward bringing criminal charges against some students.
The reprisals being undertaken by NYU executives are eerily reminiscent of those carried out in the breaking of the union of graduate student employees a few years ago. I’m reminded of President Sexton’s stomach-churning ultimatum to the striking graduate workers: cross the picket line or be blacklisted from your paid teaching post and lose the health benefits that go along with it.
As the students of the Take Back NYU! coalition contend with the disproportionate punishment being meted out by the University, I hope that working people and their labor organizations conclude that the students are deserving of firm solidarity. While many in the labor movement are broadly supportive of student activism, there are some who are privately dismissive of student efforts as inward-looking or irrelevant.
But the historic and present-day record is replete with examples of students powerfully struggling for their own autonomy at school while working side-by-side with class-based social movements beyond campus; May 1968 in France and Greece today are two oft-cited examples.
The case for worker solidarity with the NYU activists is especially strong given the explicit pro-worker, pro-union orientation of four of the student demands:
1) Full compensation for all employees affected by the occupation.
2) Respect for the right of student workers to collectively bargain; an especially poignant demand in light of the recent dismantling of the graduate employees union at NYU.
3) A fair labor contract for NYU employees at home and abroad; a thoughtful demand given the certainty of migrant worker exploitation as NYU establishes its Abu Dhabi campus.
4) A reassessment of the recent lifting of the campus ban on Coca-Cola products after the company successfully spun its way out of accountability for anti-union violence in Colombia.
The students also demonstrated respect for the working class in the dignified way they conducted their protest. NYU sought to pit its hard-working rank and file security guards against the student occupiers. But the students refused to take the bait and maintained their focus and indignation on the University’s senior leadership where it belonged.
Certainly a conversation is and will continue to take place in movement circles regarding the strategic and logistical preparation of the NYU occupation. But the students’ commitment and most importantly their willingness to use direct action in support of just demands is deserving of much praise. Indeed, the U.S. student and workers’ movement as a whole is engaged in a learning and re-learning process as escalatory tactics like occupations and general strikes become more and more viable amid economic crisis.
Corporate-imposed economic pain, including millions of lost jobs and lost homes, has created a tremendous opportunity for aggressive organizing around transformative demands. The NYU occupation has inspired dialogue on the important question of student voice within the University. It has also undoubtedly inspired workers and students alike to consider the path of direct action, just as the occupations at the New School and the Republic Window and Door factory did.
Take Back NYU! and its allies are now engaged in the hard work of both growing their coalition and defending the students being targeted by the Administration. They’re going to need some serious and lasting support to move their work forward.
I hope we in the workers’ movement acknowledge the decisively pro-labor orientation of the NYU occupation with real and forceful solidarity. Please log on to www.takebacknyu.com to join the solidarity effort and encourage unions, community groups, and houses of worship to come aboard as well. Together, we can build towards occupations where workers and students simultaneously withdraw their cooperation from the universities until democracy prevails.
Daniel Gross is the director of Brandworkers International and an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World on its Starbucks campaign. He is co-author with Staughton Lynd of the recently released "Labor Law for the Rank & Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law" (PM Press). He can be reached through http://www.Brandworkers.org.