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New Idea on Grad Students, Unions

April 20, 2009

New York University has been the site of a historic breakthrough for the push to unionize graduate teaching assistants -- and a bitter strike to preserve the union, which ended in failure, without collective bargaining. NYU administrators are now floating an idea that would give graduate students the right to join the university's adjunct union.

The idea is linked to improvements NYU is considering in doctoral students' funding packages. Currently, students receive five years of support, but some of the support is linked to teaching for two or four semesters. The NYU plan would end the teaching requirement. Graduate students would still be encouraged to teach, but any teaching assignments would be paid on top of their fellowships. For those assignments, they would be treated as adjuncts, and covered by NYU's adjunct union.

To date, NYU is the only private university ever to recognize a union for graduate teaching assistants. NYU recognized the union in 2002 and negotiated a contract with it. But in 2005, NYU stopped negotiating with the union -- something it had the legal right to do under a National Labor Relations Board ruling that found graduate teaching assistants were not entitled to collective bargaining rights at private institutions. (State laws govern the issue for public university graduate students.)

In some sense, NYU's offer could be seen as victory for the union movement in that the university is paving the way for graduate students to have collective bargaining rights that would govern salaries and include grievance procedures over work performed teaching. Adjuncts at NYU have an active union, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers. A separate UAW unit represented graduate students when NYU recognized the union, and that UAW local wants to return to being the collective bargaining unit for the grad students. Notably, the NYU offer is coming at a time that many expect the NLRB to reverse its ruling on graduate students, paving the way for graduate student unions with or without the blessings of private universities.

And for that reason, leaders of the UAW local for graduate students are attacking NYU's latest idea as an effort to give graduate students half a loaf when they may be on the verge of getting a whole loaf.

The university and the union are once again far apart in how they see things. Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at NYU, said that the idea has the potential to be "great for graduate students," adding: "In a time of cutbacks, if we do this, NYU is investing in graduate education."

But Rana M. Jaleel, a doctoral student in American studies and a UAW organizer, said that NYU is being "incredibly disingenuous" in floating the plan. "This would bring back all the problems of exploitation" that existed prior to the UAW's contract with the university, she said.

Competing Histories of NYU

It is generally agreed that this decade has seen notable improvements in the treatment of graduate students at NYU, but there are different theories about why that is the case. The UAW maintains that NYU started spending more when the union drive took off -- and when the university needed to kill the strike.

The university sees another explanation. During the 1980s and 1990s, NYU became an aggressive recruiter of faculty talent in arts and sciences. Those professors wanted top graduate students, and graduate education became more of a priority.

Indeed, in an interview, Stimpson emphasized the evolution of NYU's approach to graduate support, not the union issue. Over a period of years, she noted, gradual improvements have been adopted. This year, with some universities shrinking graduate admissions, could be an ideal time to recruit top graduate students, Stimpson said. For the past few months, she said, she has been working with other NYU leaders to see what could be done to make the university more attractive to grad students.

Removing the teaching requirement from the graduate student fellowships was logical, Stimpson said, as it would do one of two things: Graduate students who opt not to teach would have more time for their courses and dissertations, while those who do teach would have more money -- since they would keep their fellowships, but would earn additional funds through the teaching assignments.

Stimpson stressed that she wanted doctoral students to continue to teach, calling that "very important" as part of their training. But she said that that she also thought it was important that they not teach too much, so that they can proceed through their degree requirements. "The point is to give the doctoral students the opportunity to work with faculty mentors and advisers and to finish in a timely fashion," she said.

On the question of a union for graduate students, one of the key points of contention -- in NRLB rulings and in the views of NYU and other private universities -- has been whether graduate teaching assistants should be seen primarily as students (the universities' view) or as employees (the union perspective). Stimpson said her view was unchanged. She said that plan being discussed "enhances the student experience."

But she noted that at various points in the debate over graduate student unions, people on both sides of the issue asked, "Why don't you simply call them adjuncts?"

Over the last week, Stimpson said she has been briefing groups of students and faculty members, and that response has been varied. Asked if she has briefed the UAW on the plan, she said she had not specifically done so, but that some students at the briefings sported buttons or T-shirts indicating their support for the union. (In some departments, union supporters have organized meetings of graduate students to discuss the NYU plan with a UAW representative.)

Asked whether the NYU plan might be a compromise other private universities might consider, she said that she didn't know. "When I talk to my fellow deans, their concerns are the financial situation, the NRC study, time-to-degree issues," she said. "The dominant concern now is how do we keep graduate education going at a time of financial scarcity."

An End Run?

Jaleel, the graduate student organizer for the UAW, said that there were many problems with the NYU proposal. She said that while she and other graduate students have great respect for the adjunct union, graduate students and adjuncts do not share all of the same issues, and graduate students need their own union. She also said that NYU was not releasing enough details about the concept. "They just say 'trust us' and obviously none of us want to."

She added that "the thing that's really troubling is that they are trying to rush this. This is union-busting."

Jaleel said that union members have high hopes for the NLRB, once President Obama makes more nominations to it. In addition, there is legislation in Congress to require the NLRB to treat graduate students as employees. So Jaleel said that the graduate student organizers for the UAW believe that they could soon be organizing as graduate students. Jaleel said that the NYU plan seems to be an end run, to get students to join another union rather than recreating one for themselves. She noted that the UAW, even after the strike, never abandoned the Graduate Student Organizing Council for the NYU graduate student union.

"GSOC hasn't gone anywhere, and it's not going anywhere. We are a union. We've been a union, and we'll remain a union," Jaleel said. "These are just Bush-era underhanded tactics."

 

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