The Cocktail Party Contrarian: Vote of NYU Adjunct Faculty Union on Gaza War Puts Students, Members on the Spot

Is NYU’s union of adjunct professors protecting employees or using them to bash Israel?

AP/Seth Wenig
The NYU campus at New York in December 2021. AP/Seth Wenig

UAW Local 7902, which represents New York University adjunct professors and the New School’s part-time faculty, student workers, and health service employees, can claim some tangible successes on behalf of its roughly 5,000 members. In 2022 it  negotiated a new contract for adjuncts with pay raises and health benefits, and in recent months it has defended job security and battled the reduction in teaching assignments for professors paid by the numbers of courses they offer.

Yet Local 7902’s record of defending members’ interests took a left turn a couple of weeks ago when it pivoted away from a workers’ rights agenda and toward a political one. The union’s Joint Council met last month to debate the passing of a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, the release of all “Palestinian and Israeli hostages,” and an end to “unconditional funding” of the Israeli government, which is accused in the document of “occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing.”

Members immediately split over the language of the document and on the question of the union taking a political position of any kind. One adjunct associate professor of marketing at NYU, David Vinjamuri, opposed the motion to adopt the statement. He listed many other geopolitical events about which Local 7902 had made no comment in the past, such as the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and the starvation of 2.2 million children in Yemen.

Mr. Vinjamuri saw no cause to start now and called the statement’s language divisive, warning it would expose members to potential “acts of malice and hatred.” An adjunct professor at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and member of Local 7902, Steven Ancona, says the statement is “filled with factual inaccuracies” and objected to its release. “I feel the union has no business making statements outside its mandate, which is simply to improve the working conditions of its members,” he says.

“Professors have the right to pursue any political causes they want, but they don’t need to do it under the auspices of their labor union,” Mr. Ancona says. An Israeli-American adjunct faculty member in music technology at NYU’s Steinhardt School, Dafna Naphtali, spoke in favor of the resolution. She acknowledged that the council had not made public declarations about other world events, but said that the war with Hamas is different because of what is happening in reaction to it on NYU’s campus.

Another supporter of the statement was Lee-Sean Huang, who teaches web design at NYU’s Tisch School. He pointed to the need to protect union members from job losses and rescinded scholarships, citing the document’s second paragraph, which says, “UAW and Local 7902 are committed to defending our members from any kind of harassment or retaliation.” Mr. Huang did not explain why the statement’s paragraphs accusing Israel of war crimes were necessary for the advancement of that goal, however.

After an hours-long meeting, the motion to approve the statement passed. A tie was broken by President Zoe Carey, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the New School for Social Research, who cast the deciding vote in favor. Local 7902 emailed the statement to its membership but has yet to publicly post it. The union did promote on its Instagram page a cease-fire protest in December at Bryant Park.

Many members who participated in or observed the Council meeting have been registering their disapproval. Some who disavow the statement feel unfairly painted with a broad brush. They worry about relationships with students, several of whom have seen the document and are discussing it with friends. An NYU junior, Zach Leslie, selected his spring semester courses by cross-referencing the signatures on the Faculty for Justice in Palestine letter that NYU professors released in the wake of October 7.  He avoided classes taught by those whose names appeared on that document. 

“If I knew a teacher was on that list I would absolutely self-censor,” he says. “I would worry that I would be alienated and that my grades would suffer.” Mr. Leslie has read the Local 7902 statement and would like to similarly avoid the classes of adjuncts who voted for it, but the document doesn’t identify supporting and dissenting professors. Issued in the name of the union as a whole, it suggests widespread acceptance, which Mr. Leslie says is a real concern.

“I don’t believe the Joint Committee that voted is truly representative of the members on this issue,” Professor Ancona says. “I don’t think we’ll ever know that with certainty, though.” During the meeting some members did recommend bringing the statement before the larger union membership meeting happening just days later precisely to assess wider buy-in and interest, but the recommendation was rejected.

Several Local 7902 members are working on a letter of objection to the statement and are collecting signatures. Mr. Ancona says he and others are “exploring options” for withdrawal. “I feel betrayed by their hijacking of the union to pursue personal political issues I disagree with, and am anxious to withdraw from membership,” he says.

Not everyone feels they can make that choice. Adjuncts without other income sources worry that breaking with the union will leave them and their jobs vulnerable to a university seeking ways to reduce costs incurred by the 2022 contract. At the same time, they worry that staying with the union might mean blowback from individuals and organizations that object to the statement.

So much for protecting employees. Local 7902’s leadership seems more interested in using them to advance a political agenda that has nothing to do with employees’ rights. “One of the authors of the statement was actually documented ripping down hostage posters,” Mr. Ancona says, referring to Charles Gelman of NYU’s Gallatin School, who created the document along with Gordon Beeferman, adjunct professor with NYU’s music department. “That the union didn’t take that into account is telling.”

Or maybe leadership did take it into account, and saw the opportunity. The weaponization of everything for political purposes has often been a winning tactic even as it diminishes and divides almost every sector of American life, so why not try it here? So far, it has worked.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use