Graduate students who spent the last semester on strike at New York University have returned to their classes, with a quiet end to what was once seen as a landmark labor action.
The students, affiliated with the United Auto Workers, had been fighting for the university to recognize them as a union. NYU previously had done so, and had been the only private institution to ever do so for its graduate students. But following a National Labor Relations Board ruling that the university didn't have to recognize the union, NYU stopped doing so when the students' sole contract expired.
The strike began with large rallies and vows to continue the fight until a union was won. The labor action was seen by many as crucial not just to NYU, but to other private universities where graduate students have pushed without success to unionize. But by the end of the spring semester, the strike was hardly visible on the NYU campus, except for periodic protests or media events. In the end, the strike ended without grand public announcements by either side.
The UAW's Web site makes no mention of the strike ending. But The Washington Square News reported Wednesday that union organizers were showing up for their teaching assistant jobs, and no longer planning strike activity. Organizers told the student paper that they were not giving up their fight for collective bargaining, but that since the make-up of the graduate student body changes every year -- with some students moving on and new ones arriving -- it was appropriate to see if the reconstituted group wanted to strike.
At the end of the spring semester, the union said that it would not be organizing pickets over the summer, but expected to press on in the fall.
John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said via e-mail, said, "Last year's strike did not achieve popular support, and the limited support it had diminished over time, as the overwhelming majority of our graduate
assistants elected to fulfill their teaching commitments to their undergraduates. By the second semester last year, its effects were all but imperceptible, both academically and otherwise; out of 1,000 GAs, perhaps a dozen or two dozen chose not to fulfill their responsibilities."
For months now, NYU officials have been saying that the strike has been a non-issue. As graduate students gradually returned to work -- with NYU gradually raising the stakes for them not doing so -- pickets and disruptions have dwindled. Depending on where you are, and what day it is, the strike could seem alive and well or dead in the water. At gatherings nationally of graduate students or humanities groups, as recently as a few weeks ago, speakers from the UAW group at NYU would vow that they were fighting on. And the union was still able to organize events that drew attention -- such as when leaders of the American Association of University Professors were arrested as part of a protest in April. But on most days last spring, if one didn't happen to run into a few protesters outside the NYU main administration building, a visitor to campus wouldn't have known that there was a strike going on.
NYU recognized the union in 2002, following an NLRB ruling that said that graduate students at private universities were employees. In 2004, however, the NLRB reversed itself and gave private universities the right to block unions. The latest ruling didn’t bar collective bargaining, but it gave NYU the option it exercised — to just walk away from the union. As the union's contract drew to a close last summer, NYU leaders started suggesting that they would not negotiate another one, and following various studies and meetings, that's what the university did. (TA unions are common at many state universities, where state laws govern collective bargaining for public institutions, so the NLRB ruling did not apply.)
At the time that NYU negotiated a contract with the union, it could have filed legal appeals to delay collective bargaining -- and other private universities were horrified that NYU didn't do so. But university officials said at the time that they thought they had worked out an agreement with the UAW that would provide for improved compensation for graduate students, while not creating problems for the university. Indeed, both graduate student leaders and the university have acknowledged that stipends and benefits for graduate students were far too low prior to the union movement.
NYU has noted, however, that the period in which the union gained support and had a contract coincided with a period in which the university's ambitions for national prominence grew as well. With the university trying to compete with top institutions for the best graduate students -- and with many universities improving treatment of graduate students -- NYU has said that the students don't need a union to be assured of good treatment. And as NYU announced it would no longer deal with the UAW, it also announced healthy raises for the graduate teaching assistants, and a timetable to allow them to know what their pay would be in the future. The union has responded that graduate students do need such assurances in contracts.
University officials, in their statements about the union, have repeatedly complained that the UAW broke a pledge not to seek to involve itself in "academic" decisions. If the UAW had focused on wages and insurance and such issues, NYU officials have said, the union relationship might have worked out. The union has responded by saying that it has only become involved when graduate students' employee rights were being violated.
Faculty members have been split at NYU. The strike has never been a hot issue in the professional schools, but the union movement was a rallying cry for many in arts and sciences, where NYU has become a hot institution in the humanities and some other fields in the last decade or so. Many faculty members pushed hard for the original decision to recognize the union in 2002. And a group called Faculty Democracy was formed last year to express professorial support for the striking graduate students -- and to say that the union had improved the university. But NYU has been able to point to professors -- some of them liberal politically and generally sympathetic to the labor movement -- who have backed the university's stance and found the UAW difficult.
Undergraduate reactions have been mixed. Early on, some students joined picket lines and protests, and when some faculty members moved classes off campus to avoid crossing picket lines, students followed them to makeshift classrooms around Manhattan. But many students -- and their tuition-paying parents -- have been particularly concerned about the possible impact of a strike on instruction or grading, and NYU has repeatedly reached out to them with updates, noting that grades were not delayed by the strike.
The student newspaper started off the strike by backing the UAW, and criticized the administration for not making “a good-faith effort to negotiate with the union.” But as the strike dragged on, the newspaper's tone changed. In March, an editorial called the UAW’s pledge of increased support “disingenuous,” and advised the union to “admit that the strike is floundering."
This week, the newspaper's editorial noted an "arc" of campus reactions to the strike: "enthusiasm, irritation, apathy."