NYU Graduate Union Votes for Changeby Samuel Feldblum
Last month in this space, H. Rutgers (self-unmasked in the Web version as faculty member Gary Roth) described the increasing profiteering of top university figures at his namesake school while lower-level professors and students foot the bill. Increasing reliance on underpaid adjunct faculty and ballooning tuition costs have become hallmarks of the academic experience of part-time faculty and students of schools nationwide. Graduate students, inhabiting a grey area between student and part-time worker, are hardly thrilled by their position in this Pikettian drama. NYU president John Sexton makes $1.5 million (plus another $800,000 in promised retirement benefits) a year, according to the New York Times;1 some graduate student workers at NYU’s Polytechnic campus in Brooklyn are paid $8.50 an hour and lack health insurance. It was in response to such conditions that, on September 17, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (G.S.O.C) of NYU wrote the latest chapter in their battle against the administration.
After months of negotiation with the school failed to produce a labor agreement for the G.S.O.C. during the spring, the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (A.W.D.U.) swept elections for positions on the bargaining committee at the beginning of the fall semester. Running on a platform of increased democratization of union activities and increased transparency of negotiations, the A.W.D.U. galvanized the graduate student body, with voter turnout much higher than during the previous round of elections. Their opponents, Make History Again, did not lose the support that had earlier put them in charge but were swept out of office by hundreds of new voters supporting A.W.D.U.
Now armed with a mandate to implement their more ground-up, participatory approach, A.W.D.U. looks to get a contract in place without ceding the overly generous concessions offered to the school during the last round of negotiations. Foci range from “bread-and-butter” issues like wage increases, health insurance coverage—including coverage for family members—and protections for lost income due to cancelled classes to more specialized issues of child-care assistance, lactation rooms, and stability for international students in job placement. Special attention is also being given to the conditions of workers at the Polytechnic Institute. When interviewed, the bargainers-elect—David Klassen, Ayesha Omer, Shelly Ronen, and Ella Wind—expressed optimism that the increasingly energized base would be able to secure such a strong contract. The input and zeal of more members, they hope, will overcome the weakened position of the outgoing administration and result in a more favorable deal. Their strategy is one of “revival from below.”2
“Everyone needs to be reading the blog of the bargaining committee and knowing what’s going on, who are the main characters and what we’re up against,” explained Ronen. “And people should come to bargaining sessions. That’s going to be the real fun. I want to sit across the table from negotiators with a bunch of excited colleagues in my unit standing behind me, backing me up—and holding me accountable.” Maintaining the energy of the campaign will be essential for the A.W.D.U. committee members if they hope to achieve the robust package of concessions that they aim for.
The outcomes of these contract negotiations take on additional weight given that the G.S.O.C. of NYU is the first graduate student workers union on a private university campus in the United States—for the second time. Fourteen years ago, the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B) ruled that NYU graduate student workers were employees of the school, allowing them to form the first graduate student workers’ union at a private university in the country. Major improvements in the economic conditions of the graduate workers followed. In 2004, though, a more conservative N.L.R.B. ruled against grad student unionization at Brown University, and the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU was unable to negotiate another contract after its first ended in 2005.
Determined but now without legal backing, the graduate workers organized a strike that lasted six months and continued to fight for university recognition in subsequent years. Finally, last year, with the Sexton administration enfeebled by years of bad publicity—shamed for loaning professors money for summer homes in the Hamptons, votes of no confidence from the staffs of various departments—the school agreed to return to the negotiating table with the G.S.O.C. in conjunction with United Auto Workers (U.A.W.) if students voted to join the union. Students voted overwhelmingly in favor, 620 to 10. The Graduate Student Organizing Committee/United Auto Workers ( G.S.O.C./U.A.W.) Local 2110 was formed. Sexton, meanwhile, has agreed under pressure to step down at the end of his contract.
Students were elated, billing their victory as a “step forward […] for those fighting the corporatization of higher education across the country.”2 The negotiating committee elected by the G.S.O.C. went into the spring with the goal of hammering out a deal by the end of the semester. No agreement was reached, however, with many members of the G.S.O.C. citing inadequate mobilization and little inclusion of rank-and-file union members. Meanwhile, closed-door meetings were in some cases held between U.A.W. staff and members of the administration without any graduate students present, according to Wind. Four members of the bargaining committee resigned at the end of the semester, and the September elections to replace these members effectively served as a referendum on the approach of the past bargaining committee.
The newly elected committee members plan to ensure that its meetings with the school are all on-the-record and open. They aim to enhance communication between the committee and rank-and-file members of the union, sending out biweekly updates on union activity. Breaking with the previous strategy, they hope to disseminate news outside of NYU’s campus to publicize the union’s fight for its workers. Part of the reason for this enhanced communication strategy is that the union must deal with the difficulty of bringing together students from different schools and disciplines, who traditionally exist in largely separate spheres. But Natasha Raheja, an incumbent member of the bargaining committee associated with the A.W.D.U., stresses the importance of nurturing the “cross-department and member-member connections that are integral to building our union’s power.”3 And Klassen, during his campaign, found that “people were very interested in listening to the experience of colleagues in different parts of the university and were eager to find venues where these cross-departmental bonds could be strengthened. I think that the union could be an ideal place for that to happen.”
Based as they are in collective action, labor unions inherently lend themselves to this spirit of solidarity, even while those running them have historically often acted to limit rank-and-file activity—the A.W.D.U. felt that the spring semester was just such an instance. Part of the mission of the G.S.O.C.’s new leadership is to link the union to a wider network of local labor movements. The G.S.O.C. has already acted in concert with the ACT-UAW, the adjunct workers union at NYU, in response to attempts by the university to reclassify graduate workers’ work as adjunct in nature (it was this which resulted in the N.L.R.B. deciding to review the G.S.O.C.’s case).4 The A.W.D.U. of NYU also works closely with the A.W.D.U. branches of the University of California system and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and, according to Klassen, have been approached by graduate students from other universities watching closely to see how this labor struggle turns out.
These are exciting times for the graduate workers union of NYU. The results of this bargaining committee’s efforts will help to decide the working conditions of NYU graduate students for years and will ripple across campuses as other private universities base their actions on the precedent now being set. The new members of the bargaining committee—in conjunction, of course, with the old members and with the union’s rank and file—must now move from philosophy to action; the hardest work still remains.
- Steven Greenhouse. “NYU Graduate Assistants to Join Auto Workers’ Union,” New York Times, December 13, 2013.
- Christy Thornton. “Students at the Barricades,” Jacobin Magazine, August, 2014.
- Natasha Raheja. “NYU Grad Union Needs a Contract Campaign, Not Just a Contract,” Labornotes, August 2014.
- Christy Thornton. “Union Again at NYU,” Jacobin Magazine, December 2013.
SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.