As a doctoral candidate studying Jewish history at New York University, I have long enjoyed a scholarly relationship with Jewish female turn-of-the-century labor leaders like Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, and Pauline Newman. But this past fall, as the Graduate Student Union at NYU struggled for a work contract, I became involved in a fight for labor rights that took me out of the archives, out of the classroom, and onto the picket line.
I entered NYU in 2002, the first year that NYU graduate students worked under a union contract. Our agreement stipulated that in exchange for six semesters of work as a teaching or research assistant or as an instructor, I would receive five years of full health insurance and a stipend of about $ 16,000 the first year with modest increases annually. (Before the union, graduate stipends averaged $ 10,000 a year and did not include any benefits.)
Last August, the University administration refused to re-negotiate a contract with our union. They left us with no system of grievances to protect the benefits we’d won under the previous contract, and reduced our health benefits. When demonstrations and open letters to the administration did not convince the university to open negotiations, we voted to strike. Hundreds of us walked out of our jobs and onto the picket line.
When Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich struck their garment shops in 1909, violent skirmishes with the police and hired thugs punctuated their picketing. Our picket lines are neither as frightening nor as exciting. Instead, we are cold. bored and exhausted We walk in circles, keep our spirits up by chanting and ask passing vehicles to honk in support.
At the time of this writing, there is no resolution in sight for the NYU graduate students. Knowing we can be locked out of our jobs at any moment makes us sharply aware of how vulnerable we are without the security of a union contract.
Next time I teach my students about Lemlich, Schneiderman and Newman, I hope to do it under the protection of the labor movement that these remarkable women helped to build.