With two high-profile higher education cases under consideration, labor board says it will carry on as usual despite an appeals court's ruling that calls into question the legitimacy of its appointees.
Major college groups and organized labor argue over status of graduate employees, and whether collective bargaining is appropriate for them. New question gets attention: Can grad student interests be represented only by their own unions?
Submitted by J.P. Leary on August 10, 2005 - 4:00am
On August 4, three weeks before its historic first contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee was set to expire, New York University announced that it would no longer recognize its teaching assistants’ union. The decision was not a surprise -- NYU has been campaigning against the union since last fall. So why wait so long to make this official announcement? NYU’s plans are not popular on our campus, and it preferred to reveal its intentions over summer break, when the university is nearly empty.
In 2001, NYU became the first private university in the nation to recognize a union of its grad student employees, who perform essential teaching, administrative, and research jobs on campus. (Graduate unions have existed for decades at many public institutions nationwide.) NYU’s graduate students elected to affiliate with UAW local 2110, a union that represents office and professional workers (our local includes workers at the Museum of Modern Art and The Village Voice).
Students negotiated a contract with the university that increased wages by an average of 40 percent and, for the first time ever, guaranteed full health coverage and office space for some of the primary teachers of NYU undergraduates. The contract also set maximum weekly work hours, which helped keep classes small and prevented the university from overburdening individual TA's to cut costs. My older brother, now a doctoral candidate in cinema studies and one of the first members of GSOC, earned $10,000 per year and had no health insurance as a TA. He had to take on as many as two extra jobs while he taught in order to pay rent in New York City, which can easily exceed $10,000 per year. The improvements in graduate student life only came about because students organized a union to demand them. I have no reason to expect that NYU will, as some in the administration have put it, "take care of us" without one.
In April, a majority of graduate students signed a petition to NYU President John Sexton asking for new contract negotiations, and more than 200 full-time faculty have since done the same. Despite this broad support, NYU insists on opposing GSOC for only one major reason: it argues that a union will interfere with "academic decision-making" -- decisions, for example, about who will teach which class and what they will put on the syllabus. The fact that NYU can cite no convincing examples that any such union meddling has ever happened over the course of the contract has not stopped its lawyers from repeatedly raising these issues in the anti-union emails with which they regularly bombard the entire campus. Often authored by university lawyers Terry Nolan and Cheryl Mills, these long-winded odes to the life of the mind argue quaintly that union representation is incompatible with the "academic values" of a university.
According to this view, the university is a sanctuary from the workaday world -- fair negotiations over wages, benefits, and terms of employment are the kind of vulgarities that belong at a lumberyard, not the sacrosanct university campus. In April, Mills and Nolan wrote that unions are "familiar with industrial work environments; they are not familiar with academic decision-making within universities.” This is a foolish claim that should surprise any member of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 130,000 professors and academic professionals across the country, including those in New York City’s public university system -- not to mention our UAW colleagues at the Universities of California, Massachusetts, and Washington.
NYU’s charges of UAW interference in "academic decision-making" focus on the grievance procedure that students negotiated in our contract. This is a standard provision of any union pact, including teaching unions, because it allows employees (and employers) to enforce their contracts. Currently, disputes not settled at these earlier stages will be decided by an independent arbitrator. NYU has now proposed a grievance procedure in which all grievances not settled at the not resolved at the departmental or school level would be "fully and finally" decided by the provost, which would effectively give the university the last word on all the terms of our employment.
GSOC has filed grievances when grad students have come to the union with real problems with employment issues. For example, a graduate student I know taught a class for which she was never paid. The dispute was settled only after she filed a grievance for back pay. The grievance procedure exists precisely to resolve cases like this, not to protest unpopular teaching assignments or rearrange course syllabi. Of course, GSOC members do not win every case; nor does the university. Even so, when NYU insisted that our grievances were the main obstacle to negotiating a second union contract, GSOC offered to withdraw any grievance the university found problematic. NYU rejected this offer at compromise, and then announced its decision not to negotiate with the union.
So what makes graduate assistant unions so important for college education today? For one thing, they are one bulwark against the streamlining of undergraduate education -- a business model of cost-cutting that is eroding the quality of a college education precisely when it is growing more expensive — over $31,000 a year at NYU. Most undergraduates at big universities today will only occasionally encounter a tenured faculty member during their studies. According to David Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, at NYU today at least 70 percent of undergraduate classes are taught by overworked and undervalued, yet talented and dedicated, graduate assistants and part-time or adjunct faculty, simply because this is the cheapest way to shuttle students through their degree programs. This is one reason why NYU objects to our union.
The university has hidden behind last year's partisan 3-2 decision by the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board, which overturned its own precedent that graduate assistants were employees legally entitled to join a union. NYU contends that this decision validates its counterintuitive claim that paid teaching assistants are students, and not employees. We are, quite obviously, both. Yet the votes of three political appointees in Washington should not outweigh those of hundreds of graduate students at NYU.
The university's decision-making process on unionization has in this way been taken completely out of students’ and faculty’s hands. Administrators made their decision over the summer, and only asked for “comments” from the university community afterwards. A campus "town hall meeting" with President Sexton was scheduled for a mid-July Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after the university had already announced preliminary plans to oppose the TA union.
NYU did solicit professors’ opinions on GSOC -- but again, only after the decision had already been made public. In response, Faculty Democracy, a newly-formed group of over 100 professors from a variety of disciplines, wrote President Sexton an angry letter calling NYU’s deliberations on GSOC "a mockery of process."
When one gets down to the bare facts, NYU has simply behaved like any big company fighting its employees. Yet graduate students are not the only ones that stand to lose if NYU succeeds in eliminating a union that many students and professors agree has benefited both graduate and undergraduate education here. If NYU’s undergraduates really are a priority of this university anymore, it is crucial that their primary teachers have a manageable teaching load, job security, and the respect of their employers. Once again, it has fallen to teaching assistants and their adjunct colleagues to remind NYU administrators of the real "academic values" of the university: to teach students.
J.P. Leary is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at New York University and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.
The nature of graduate assistants – students or "workers" -- has been at the heart of the graduate assistant unionization effort at a number of private universities. New York University’s unwavering position has been that graduate assistants are students, not employees, and their assistantships are financial aid to support their academic program. This has been our position even when the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise for a brief period before returning to its long-held position last summer. In deciding whether to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers, this principle would had to have been maintained in any outcome the university embraced.
NYU’s decision not to renegotiate a new contract with the UAW cannot be separated from the history of its experience with the UAW over the course of the original contract. In 2001 when NYU signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers and gave up its right to take the matter to court, the university took a leap of faith: We relied on an understanding with the UAW about the need to protect core academic decision-making from collective-bargaining process. This understanding was recorded both in contract language and an accompanying letter from the UAW. These assurances formed the foundation of our agreement and were indispensable to our decision to forgo our rights to appeal the decision at that time.
However, contrary to their commitment, the UAW sought to obtain authority through the grievance process over academic matters that they had specifically agreed were not within their purview. These grievances were not simple issues over back pay, as the union publicly proclaims. They are challenges to the kind of key academic decisions no university would subject to collective bargaining: who is appointed to teach a class, how many years graduate students can take to complete their studies, or who is a graduate assistant. The fact that the union’s grievance attempts on these issues failed and that arbitrators strongly rejected their claims does not change the peril the grievances posed. Had an arbitrator decided against NYU, even wrongly, the decision would have had the force of law. Moreover, these grievances reflected a fundamental lack of good faith that is compounded by the union’s efforts to recast them in their public utterances.
So, as NYU contemplated whether to enter voluntarily into a new contract, these matters weighed heavily. The university engaged in a robust and thorough dialogue on the matter, involving many forums. Two committees -- one of faculty and the other elected University Senators -- both advised against negotiating a new contract, citing the grievances in particular, and 160 faculty members signed a letter urging the University not to sign a new contract, saying:
“For a graduate student union to be appropriate, the predominant or primary relationship between the University and its graduate students must be that of employer to employee. But that is clearly not the case...
"...[O]ur PhD students are chosen for their potential to become, after a period of intensive training lasting several years, important contributors to their academic disciplines. A part -- but not the main part -- of that training involves learning the craft of teaching, which in turn involves the often arduous tasks of grading, lecturing and interacting with students. But could anyone looking at this picture in the whole seriously maintain that the primary nature of the relationship between the University and its graduate students is that between an employer and its employees?"
Given that the UAW was already on our campus, and it was clear that many graduate assistants wanted the union to be their voice mechanism, the university took the unprecedented step of seeking to meet the UAW half-way in response to their public statements that it was willing to take the issue of grievances off the table.
Before NYU decided last week not to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers as collective bargaining representatives for its graduate students, we fashioned an offer that would have sought a middle ground, striking an important balance and creating a new paradigm. The offer provides graduate assistants with union representation on economic issues, while protecting the integrity of the academic decision-making process that is essential to graduate assistants’ primary role as students. Grievances would be addressed within the academic processes of the university and conclude with the provost, thereby ensuring that academic decisions involving graduate students are made through academic processes and based on academic norms.
In making this offer, NYU moved farther than any other private college or university to try to reach an agreement. We were willing to enter into an agreement that would have created this new paradigm; the UAW was not. NYU wanted academic decisions to be made in an academic process; the United Auto Workers wanted academic decisions to be made by outsiders.
And so, we will implement the proposals NYU offered in June, which built in part upon the lessons we learned from our experience with unionization: $1,000 per year increase in the base stipend (currently $18,000 annually) for each of the next three years for graduate students, payment of 100 percent of student health insurance premiums, full tuition remission, and the creation of new mechanisms for graduate student voice within the NYU community, as well as a $200,000 fund for medical emergencies (a suggestion that emerged as our proposals were being considered). This will permit our graduate students to pursue their studies in an environment guided by academic norms and oriented to supporting their academic success, with the support of stipends and benefits that are guaranteed.
Each university will necessarily make its own decision as it confronts calls for unionizing graduate assistants. NYU’s history will probably be instructive to many, and the UAW’s rejection of our offer will likely come to be seen as a singular lost opportunity: that a union could not bring itself to embrace a new paradigm, preferring instead to rely upon a traditional employer/employee labor model that has proven to be ill-suited for an academic environment.
John Beckman is vice president for public affairs at New York University. (An article by a member of the TA union at NYU, defending the United Auto Workers, appeared on Inside Higher Ed last week.)
Back in the prelapsarian days of faculty unionization in the 1970s, when there were few laws on the books empowering and regulating collective bargaining in higher education, it was not uncommon for administrators to recognize a union simply because faculty had voted for it. It was an almost unspoken tenet of campus collegiality -- and a precursor to today's embattled concept of shared governance -- that institutions should honor the clear majority wishes of their faculty. That is essentially what happened recently to the graduate employee union drive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a decade's struggle, the enlightened chancellor -- who has since resigned -- simply recognized the union.
There was a difference, however; the graduate student vote had taken place years ago and been dismissed as legally nonbinding. What graduate student employees had to do to apply a bit of leverage was to occupy the administration building. Details of that story are in Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004). There is a general lesson in the Illinois strategy: you can get a union if your employee group has majority support for it and if you are willing to go the distance, to disrupt daily life on campus by nonviolent civil disobedience. That may well be what will be required at New York University this fall.
Every unionization drive now includes an aggressive anti-union campaign organized and funded by the administration. Why? Why has the civility of an earlier (and far from utopian) era disappeared? Why do administrators fear graduate student employee unionization drives? I'd like to propose some answers to these questions:
1. The character of higher education administration is changing. I still prefer the model of an eloquent and progressive administrator whom one can admire. That is my notion of appropriate campus leadership. I encountered such people several times at my undergraduate college (Antioch) and have done so repeatedly at Illinois, but in the last decade I have increasingly witnessed administrators who make exploiting the campus workforce a primary aim. When an administrator prefers to deny campus employees decent health care, satisfactory retirement benefits, a living wage, safe working conditions, and effective grievance procedures, that administrator is an adversary. Unionization does not invent adversary relationships in such cases; instead it recognizes them and tries to negotiate them in a rational way.
2. Every administrator wants full control over the budget and maximum personal power. Unions alter the forces effecting budget allocation. They change campus priorities. Even the modest gains graduate employees have won represent a symbolic loss of centralized power. Administrators fear the symbolism as much as the real impact. But the message successful collective action sends about the potential to change campus power relations more generally is a potent one that worries administrators considerably.
3. Unionization threatens the increasing use of contingent labor. A legally binding union contract may be the only way to limit the growing reliance on contingent labor. A contract can potentially restrict the percentage of courses taught by part-time faculty and by graduate students. Administrators would prefer to decide the ratio of full-time to part-time employees themselves.
4. Union solidarity and negotiation threatens increasing administrative desire to control both appointments and the curriculum. I have encountered growing administrative discomfort with traditional faculty control over appointments and growing administrative resistance to faculty control over the curriculum. Some administrators want the power to shift appointments and curricula quickly to meet corporate needs. Others simply want to emphasize more profitable majors.
5. Union solidarity strengthens academic freedom. With tolerance for campus dissent decreasing, administrators should welcome union organized support for academic freedom. Yet some administrators would prefer to capitulate to outside political and corporate pressure. It is depressingly clear that some administrators at our most prestigious campuses have no fundamental understanding of or respect for academic freedom. For them unionization seems a threat, not a benefit.
6. Unions can seek a role in defining the institution's mission. Not only administrators but also governing boards have shown interest in redefining the basic mission of colleges and universities. Where faculty senates are weak and submissive, both faculty and graduate students need a vehicle to express their views of the institution's purposes and goals. Mission statements that faculty and students find abhorrent need to be resisted.
7. Union contracts counteract the dramatic differences in campus compensation. More and more are campus salaries mimicking the increasing gap between corporate managers' earnings and those on the shop floor. As the gap between administrators' salaries and the salaries of those who teach or perform other campus work widens, the sense of common purpose is undermined. Yet too many administrators are comfortable with this trend and fear union power to resist or reverse it.
8. The greatest worry is with for sciences. A union representing research assistants in the laboratory sciences is likely to have the power to initiate grievance procedures. The secret of how some such labs are run in science and engineering is not well known. Students are often privately warned they cannot expect positive evaluations or recommendations unless they work 80-120 hours a week in the lab. Even with beginning grad students, who do not yet have dissertation projects, the time above 40 hours is treated as the student's personal research. Often it is actually virtually all research for the faculty member in charge of the lab. Established grad employee unions have regularly won grievance complaints against such practices, and that has real budgetary implications for the labs at issue. Exploitive labs are often established around a core of foreign students, many of whom do not have family in the United States and all of whom increasingly risk being thrown out of the country or denied entrance in the first place. Once a core of lab employees accepts the requirement of an 80-120 hour work week it is then possible to integrate American citizens into the same culture. Some of the other rules such labs put in place are equally surprising. Grad employees may be denied standard university holidays unless they work overtime in advance to "pay" for them. They may be assigned breakage fees for the loss of ordinary glass equipment. All these abuses will be fought by a good union.
9. Relations with faculty will be poisoned. This is a false fear, because unions tend to displace potential student/faculty confrontations. Instead of grad employees in a lab having to protest unfair working conditions to their supervisors, union negotiators initiate far less emotional and confrontational grievance procedures. Having experienced union representatives negotiate grievances reduces rather than increases antagonism. That is true both for exploitive labs and for humanities or social science courses that overwork teaching assistants. It is not in fact unusual for humanities department faculty to endorse grad employee union drives. They do so because they want their students to be better paid and because they do not see themselves as employers in any case.
10. Unions promote new identities for faculty and students. The last decade has seen a growing tendency for members of a given union to reach out to other employee groups on campus and the community. After several decades in which the self-interested, entrepreneurial faculty member has seemed the major identity available in higher education, unions have begun to promote socially responsible, community oriented identities. Some American Association of University Professors unions have reached out to help their grad employee colleagues organize for collective bargaining. Grad students and faculty have joined city-wide living wage campaigns. Grad employee unions especially have joined other campus and off-campus unions in job actions. The new Ph.D.'s who come of age in these community oriented unions enter the profession ready to pursue not only their own careers but also the well being of the whole community in which they live. An enlightened administrator has nothing to fear in this development and every reason to welcome it. But administrators who worship corporatization, not community, are coming to fear the rise of a faculty class who identify with all workers.
The American Association of University Professors recognizes the right of all campus groups to decide for themselves whether they wish to negotiate their salaries and working conditions collectively. The organization takes no position on whether they should opt to unionize. It simply recognizes that the right inheres in each employee group. Increasingly, campus administrators seek to deny that right. Several campuses have spent more fighting these drives than they would be likely to spend paying for benefits won in contact negotiations. Perhaps the reasons above help explain that anomaly.
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.