Back to School, Back to Work

On a frigid, gray day in November 2014, Professor Mark Crispin Miller of NYU spoke through a megaphone to a crowd of stamping, mitten-clad graduate students. “Everything that’s wrong with higher education,” he charged—profiteering, increasing reliance on graduate students and adjunct labor for teaching, ballooning costs—“NYU is the avant-garde!” The students, members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW), hoped to bring the school back toward the peloton. Finally, in March 2015, after nearly a year of negotiation and with the threat of a strike looming, GSOC agreed in principle to a labor contract with the school’s administration—the only such agreement at a private university in the country.

Illustration by Aditi Shah.

Contract negotiations had taken nearly a year, at times turning acrimonious, on top of a half-decade fight to even get to the negotiating table, but both sides ultimately expressed satisfaction with the agreement. The deal includes guaranteed pay increases across the board, with a doubling of wages at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering over the contract’s lifetime; improvements in healthcare coverage, including a family healthcare fund to help defray costs for family members; dental coverage for all workers; and assurance of compensation in the case of cancelled positions—all goals of GSOC. It lasts for five years, which pleases a university not eager to renegotiate quickly with energized and potentially disruptive graduate workers. The deal becomes effective on September 1st, in concert with the new school year.

Graduate workers at nearby schools watched the proceedings closely: those at Yale, Columbia, and the New School—and farther afield, Chicago and Cornell—have been likewise fighting for recognition from their respective administrations. For while graduate workers at public universities have long had the ability to unionize, the status of such unions at private institutions is as yet insecure. NYU’s precedent turns out in the event to be mostly symbolic; the administration agreed last year to recognize the union of its own volition rather than waiting for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to force its hand.

So while the deal is a milestone in graduate-worker unionizing, it is not a legal one. There is no official clarification from the NLRB as to the question of whether graduate-student workers are in fact workers, as I have been referring to them (and as they refer to themselves), or if they are primarily students and as such lack the right to organize. In 2000, the NLRB ruled in favor of NYU’s first graduate union, and a subsequent contract with the school seemed to establish the groundwork for analogues elsewhere. Four years later, though, a more conservative Bush-era NLRB ruled that graduate students (in this case, at Brown University) were not in fact workers but that their relationship with their institution was instead chiefly academic. When the first NYU contract expired the administration decided against negotiating with GSOC, despite a lengthy strike by student workers lasting for more than a semester. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, GSOC again decided to petition the NLRB, but found the process stalled for four years until NYU’s administration decided to negotiate if the petition was withdrawn. (The university did not respond to requests for comment.)

Graduate workers at Columbia, excited by the success of their NYU fellows in achieving recognition, organized a card drive—becoming the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW)—and tried for similar success uptown. When President Lee Bollinger’s administration proved unresponsive, however, the union filed with the NLRB (in December, 2014) for recognition of its right to bargain for a contract with the school. Columbia has fought the effort, characterizing the would-be union members as students rather than workers. Their position, expressed in a prepared statement, is that “treating students as employees could adversely affect their educational experience. One concern is that the unique academic program and individualized collaboration with faculty members that each student develops in graduate school are not well served by a one-size-fits-all contract.” The same arguments are echoed in a petition from graduate workers at the New School simultaneously working its way through the NLRB’s channels—students hope to be recognized as workers, and the school begs to differ, citing risks to academic freedom and to the “special relationship” between students and advisors.

Though there is not much literature on the subject, a recent study of graduate unions at public universities in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review1 found these dire prophecies unfulfilled, and found concomitant improvements in pay and in personal and professional satisfaction among the unionized student-workers. The student-workers, meanwhile, believe the whole issue of classification to be wrongheaded. “Basically, that’s what it is,” Columbia graduate student-worker Olga Brudastova told me. “It’s about us not being workers in their opinion. And we are saying au contraire, we are both students and workers! And here is work that we do that is crucial for the university in general.” Aaron Greenberg, co-chairman of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization, spoke on NPR about the increasing course load of adjunct faculty and graduate students.2 To recognize the reality of graduate work is essential to the functioning of the whole university, he told me, because for undergraduates, “our teaching conditions are their learning conditions.”

Final briefs in the Columbia case were filed on June 24th; GWC-UAW members would have the Board look to NYU for precedent, Columbia to the Brown decision. There is no indication from the NLRB of a timetable for its decision, but these developments come at a time of reckoning generally for the economics of higher education. David Klassen of NYU’s GSOC links this graduate-labor issue to others in the academy: “I think that people rightfully connect this struggle to get better conditions for grad workers to sort of a larger struggle to improve the way academic work happens in general […] There’s a huge amount of anxiety about job prospects, and part of a long process of improving those prospects is making the academic institutions more responsive to the people who are actually going, teaching, working, and studying in them.” Robin Canavan, co-chair of Yale’s GESO, pointed to gender and racial equity as a major goal of the Yale organizers. As a scientist, she is particularly interested in the “leaky pipeline” that sees increasingly few women in the higher tiers of science. “We all know it’s a problem, but getting a solution to it is the hard part. And having a say over the terms of your work, and having more academics have a voice in how that work gets done, I think is the way to solve these problems.”

Professor Andrew Delbanco of Columbia wrote in New York Review of Books in July about the rising costs of college, and the effect of these costs on who can’t afford it.3 Among other things, he mentions the irony of these supposed traditional bastions of leftiness contributing to a system that magnifies class stratification. It is likewise surprising to see such typically liberal institutions take an anti-union tack when faced with the prospect of their own students organizing. But labor sympathies are perhaps easier in theory than in practice; Daniel Menaker, describing the white-collar effort to unionize at the New Yorker in the ’70s, writes in n + 1 of liberals “turning to the right when the capitalist chips were down—just as I had been told, from my childhood on, liberals usually do, often with no embarrassment at all.” Klassen surmises why: “They [the administration] are almost shooting themselves in the foot by being so incredibly adversarial to us. And it’s because the people who run the institution [. . .] don’t really care about education. None of them got their degrees in education, they got it in law or they got it in finance. They’re finance people, they care more about the bottom line than they do about education.”

So with the capitalist chips seemingly in play, graduate unions hope to provide a potential bulwark against institutional whimsy or malfeasance hindering the education of graduate students. The Columbia graduate workers are rallying around the case of Longxi Zhao, an erstwhile teaching assistant in the chemistry department who lost his position with what the GWC-UAW alleges was a lack of due process. He worries that the decision was in fact motivated by his professor’s distrust of China—Zhao quotes him as saying “I don’t trust China.” (Court documents show that Zhao used “the F word” in emails to students, and that he did not get along well with his professor.4) He subsequently appealed that he was innocent of the alleged shirking of his duties, but the appeal was rejected without further explanation. In a press release he worried that he would “most likely have to drop out of Columbia and return to China because [he] cannot afford it,” despite a good academic record.

For now, the fate of these graduate unions is in the hands of the courts. Students hoped to be recognized without legal intervention. So far, though, only NYU has taken that step, and now the school may find itself in the avant-garde of quite another movement in higher education, and one that Klassen believes may ripple beyond these localized struggles. “The whole spectrum of how people experience the academy,” he said, “has been really degraded by the fact that these institutions are being more and more rapacious in the way they behave. And I think that in the position that I’m in now as a grad worker, the best way that I can fight back against this commodification of education and the corporatization of higher education is to join a union and fight for grad workers.”


  1. Rogers, Sean E., Adrienne E. Eaton, Paula B. Voos, “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty—Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay.” ILR Review, Volume 66, Number 2 (2013).
  2. Orson, Diane, “What Do Yale Grad Students Want? A Union.” NPR, May 4, 2014.
  3. Delbanco, Andrew, “Our University: The Outrageous Reality. The New York Review of Books,” July 9, 2015 issue.
  4. National Labor Relations Board, Region 2, Case No. 02-RC-143012. Columbia University (employer) and Graduate Workers Of Columbia GWC-UAW (petitioner). Thursday, May 21, 2015.


Samuel Feldblum

SAMUEL FELDBLUM is an armchair philosopher pondering getting out of his armchair.