Anger and Indifference in the Village

Graduate students react with a mix of dismay and disregard to NYU's rejection of a TA union.
June 20, 2005

On Thursday, New York University announced plans to stop negotiating with the United Auto Workers local that represents its graduate students. Naturally, the announcement incensed union officials. Throughout the rest of the campus, which is unusually quiet during the summer, the decision was generally met with dismay by humanities and social sciences students, nonchalance by students in the natural sciences and surprise that the union exists from some in each group.

NYU recognized the union in 2002, after the National Labor Relations Board ruling that said that graduate students at private universities were employees. The NYU union has been significant nationally because it is the only instance of collective bargaining by a private university with its graduate students. When the NLRB reversed its decision last year, private institutions gained the right to walk away from unions, which is what NYU intends to do. Union organizers were understandably upset at the turn of events, while other graduate students, interviewed around campus Friday, had diverse reactions.

"I hope somebody takes drastic action. Since I’ve been teaching here the union has been a big asset," said David Bower, an education graduate student who noted that his wages increased from around $11,000 in 2001 to about $17,000. Drastic action, however, could not be taken immediately, given that many students were gone for the summer. At the union office in Greenwich Village, organizers were making phone calls and sending e-mail messages to inform all union members of the decision, and in the hope of organizing action for the fall.

In the meantime, NYU pledged a $1,000 raise each year for the next three years. Bower said the raise is good, but that "without the union, there’s no telling what the administration can do after that."

"I had a great experience as a graduate assistant," said Catarina da Silva, a graduate student in educational leadership and social policy who is just finishing her Ph.D. "If the wages were lower, I would have needed another job. Luckily, I was able to just teach and focus on my Ph.D. [The $1,000 raises] are good, it might be a sign the school will be fair, but you just need protection."

“I don’t like the fact that the administration disregarded what the students want. And the raise is a way to co-opt the students," said Umut Turem, a graduate student studying law and society. "No one knows what will happen if there is a conflict now. Probably, the university will always be right." Turem said one of his biggest worries was for students who take more than five years to complete a Ph.D. Currently, such students are often given extra teaching assignments. "Now maybe that will disappear, and you’ll be out after five years. It seems like they’ll be less likely to negotiate on anything."

Math and physical science students, who tend to have the best wages, reacted to the news with much less concern. Maria Calle and Shilpa Khatri were among a group of math students who discussed the union over dinner Thursday night. "For the math department to compete, they have to have competitive benefits," Khatri said. "Offering a good package is a competitive advantage for them. It’s usually that way in math and sciences."

The students also talked about whether teaching demands might change. Math students generally teach throughout their stay. “I don’t think they’ll change,” Calle said. “We already teach a lot. They can’t give us much more.”

Khatri said she wasn’t sure if the union was necessarily appropriate for math students anyway. “It’s not like we’re being exploited and just doing our advisor’s work, it’s toward our thesis too.” She did, however, have some mixed feelings about the raise. "Right now that looks really good, but they could be buying us out."

"I think they will act in good faith," said Sarah Shuwairi, a psychology student. “I think the threat of a union will keep them on edge enough. I’m not anti-union, but we are students, first and foremost.” Shuwairi said that the union may be to thank for past victories, but that she has a good relationship with her superiors, and is not worried about the future. "I don’t agree with exploiting students, but it looks we’ve overcome that. Plus, I didn’t come here to have a gold office and high pay right away. We all have to start on the bottom."

But even some of the science students who doubt they will be affected are not thrilled at the university’s move. “It’s probably a bad gesture,” said Sach Sokol, a neuroscience student. He said that he feels “pretty coddled” as a science student, but feels bad for students in other disciplines, especially given the steep cost of living in New York City. "The raise is probably more of a buyout, but at least they’re getting something."

A few graduate students who felt they would be unaffected directly still had strong opinions. “I think everyone’s affected, because it affects the entire university,” said Omri Elisha, an anthropology student. “The university may well be committed to better relations now, but there’s no guarantee. It’s not a question of negotiating in good or bad faith, there needs to be a structure for balance and accountability, and student voices have to be represented."

As far as some students are concerned, the union has only made its presence felt through its disappearance.

Several humanities students said they only realized they were UAW members when they got an e-mail Thursday about the university’s decision. One said he first became aware recently when he got an e-mail saying he could no longer teach unless his dues were paid. The student just finished his program anyway.

"The big problem is that graduate students graduate," said Bower, who is worried that students who come in with the benefits the union has helped procure will see no reason to fight. "I’m happy that I’m coming into the raise," said one new humanities student who did not want her name used. "I’m not worried. But I blindly trust people."


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