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Business as Usual?
NYSTESOL Crosses Picket Lines at NYU

The New York affiliate of TESOL faced a challenging predicament in mid-November as they prepared to gather at a site on the campus of New York University for the annual NYSTESOL conference. This year's conference was highlighted by sessions with the famous Jim Cummins, a leading researcher in the area of bilingual and multicultural education.

The wrinkle this year was that at the same time NYSTESOLers were gearing up for what promised to be an event of historic proportions and import, talks between NYU and its graduate student assistants over union status and new contracts were failing to prevent a campus-wide strike.

The graduate assistants at NYU were represented by Local 2110 of the United Automobile Workers until the university declared in August, 2005, that it would no longer recognize the union. That decision by NYU officials was based on a July 13, 2004, decision by the National Labor Relations Board, in Brown University, 342 NLRB No. 42, which reversed New York University, 332 NLRB No. 111 (October 31, 2000), and established a new precedent that graduate student assistants are not considered employees for the purposes of organized labor contracts and union representation.

The graduate assistants were threatening to strike starting on Wednesday, November 9th, and the NYSTESOL conference would begin two days later, on Friday, hosted by NYU.

In the weeks leading up to these events, there were intense exchanges on the NYSTESOL listserv regarding whether to move conference sessions to an alternate site, out of respect for the striking students. The following is one heartfelt comment from an NYSTESOL member who felt conflicting allegiances:

I am scheduled, as are many people, to speak on Friday. I won't, however, cross a picket line.

If I find a same size place for people who are interested in hearing my talk and give handouts, may I move my talk off-site?

Barring that, if the strike goes on around this facility, I will cancel my speech.

The union leadership also contacted NYSTESOL ahead of the conference, asking them to cancel or move the event, a request which NYSTESOL rejected, yet, in the complex milieu of New York City political nuance, tried to justify in language showing empathy with the strikers.

This carefully parsed response was composed by George J. Morris, Immediate Past President of TESOL and Conference Registrar, whose heartfelt concern is palpable.

I am a proud member of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, Local 860 of the AFT. I have walked the picket line for the duration of four strikes and have continued to attend rallies and honor picketing for my embattled colleagues in their present predicament....I am terribly conflicted about the situation at NYU and our upcoming conference....it is practically built into my character that one does not cross a picket line. However, as an officer of this professional association, I am one of 15 people who hold a legally binding, fiduciary responsibility to our 1,000 members to not take any action that imperils the incorporation, nonprofit status, or fiscal stability of NYS TESOL. As such, I cannot consider either moving or cancelling our Annual Conference. We have signed contracts with NYU, fifty exhibitors, two major speakers, food service and technology providers, and two insurance companies--anyof which could justifiably sue us for breach of contract and cause our demise...

Mr. Morris was also understanding, and blunt, with those considering moving their sessions off site.

If a presenter decides not to appear at the conference and find an alternate site for his/her workshop at an alternate site, that session is not considered to be part of the conference, is not sponsored in any way by NYS TESOL, and neither the alternate site, the presenter, or any audience members are covered by our liability insurance in the event of a mishap. This statement is not meant to be punitive; it is absolutely required of us for everyone's protection.

The official NYSTESOL position was reiterated less than a week before the conference, and just days before the NYU graduate assistants started their strike. Julie Dziewisz, Editor of NYS TESOL Idiom, wrote the following message:

I too would like to express my concern about the effect that picketing the conference site would have on our organization.

NYU will not suffer any negative consequences if individuals do not attend our conference in protest. NYS TESOL will. NYS TESOL is a nonprofit organization that exists to support teachers in their endeavor to educate students with a range of abilities, academic levels and ages and from all cultures.

It is my hope that the graduate students and NYU can work their challenges in a way that is not detrimental to NYS TESOL--an organization that supports educators.

Another listserv post suggested a deeper significance to the entire issue.

I am saddened recently by two emails I have read on this listserv. I am not a graduate assistant, but an adjunct at NYU. I am also a student here and an alumna of the university. I am a member of the adjunct union, but also of CUNY's union and others.

However, never before has someone talked about how much we have paid for a conference setting, or "overpaid" as was mentioned at NYU. Never before has someone suggested that we do something for an organization, even if it means going against what we believe.

This possible strike hurts everyone, not just NYS TESOL. I doubt many conferences will want to come to NYU when they consider this possibility. And it was always a possibility that any university would strike.

But this possible strike particularly hurts those of us who are part of NYU and part of NYS TESOL. I dislike someone suggesting that I should choose this organization, because it will be the one who is most hurt.

Even the provost at NYU tells us that NYU respects people of differing opinions. I would hope this would be the case with our organization too.

All of us are upset about the possibility of an upcoming strike at NYU. But while I love New York State TESOL, I will not change my values to support the conference, nor do I think the organization that fosters so many things I love, should expect me to do so.

The strike began as scheduled on November 9th and, as Thanksgiving break came to an end several weeks later, showed no signs of ending. National news reported on the impasse, including a quote from Michael Palm, head of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the local affiliate of the United Auto Workers representing NYU graduate assistants: "I feel good. We knew it would take a while, and we're in it for as long as it takes."

The rest of the story is that the NYSTESOL event also went ahead as scheduled, apparently with good attendance and few problems associated with crossing picket lines. An upcoming issue of the NYSTESOL Idiom journal is going to be dedicated to reports from sessions at the conference, and, hopefully, will also include reports on the political context in which those sessions were held.

It should also be worth noting that TESOL leadership has recently given some guidance by example in dealing with policy regarding how to deal with similar circumstances. In November, 2004, the TESOL Peace Forum in Chicago was canceled due to a strike by full-time City Colleges of Chicago faculty at that time. The following is TESOL's official statement.

Regrettably, TESOL has to cancel the TESOL Peace Forum scheduled for November 6, 2004, at Truman College in Chicago. It will not be held as planned nor will it be rescheduled.

Throughout the Chicago area, college-level faculty are on strike, and many TESOL members and forum participants are involved in this situation. The strike has not yet been resolved, and negotiations are expected to continue into this weekend and maybe into next week.

TESOL has decided, therefore, to cancel the forum to ensure that the speakers and registrants have enough advance notice to change their plans.

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online