In 2002, New York University became the first private university to negotiate a labor agreement with a union of teaching assistants. The pact followed years of hostility -- and strike threats -- but was seen as a potential precedent for other private institutions.
But last year, a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board gave private universities the right not to recognize unions of their graduate students. The unions weren't outlawed, but the ruling -- which reversed an earlier one that authorized the unions -- clearly changed the dynamic.
And now NYU is serving notice that it may decide not to negotiate with its union over how to extend its contract, which covers about 1,100 graduate students and expires this summer.
The university's president raised the possibility of not negotiating with the union during a meeting with graduate students Tuesday, according to an article in The Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper.
"We don't know what we're going to do," Sexton was quoted as saying. "Pressure -- one way or another -- will not sway us; reason and conversation will."
The Washington Square News said that Sexton told graduate students that the United Auto Workers had not lived up to the agreement it made with NYU. When the university agreed to negotiate with the union, NYU had insisted on a clause that the union would not seek to interfere with the need for the university to manage academic issues.
"The union, in our view, on multiple occasions did not comply with the management clause," Sexton was quoted as saying. "We want to have the best vehicle for our students' voice and we are not sure that the best vehicle for that is collective bargaining and unions, and in part this union, the United Auto Workers."
John Beckman, an NYU spokesman, said Wednesday that officials would not discuss their views on the T.A. union. The university is engaged in discussions -- especially with its faculty and governing board -- about what to do, he said.
"So as not to prejudice that conversation, we are not going to go into the potential benefits and challenges that faculty, students or others might have experienced under this contract," Beckman said.
As for the UAW, it is promising NYU that it will not be ignored without a fight. "We are going to do everything we can to impress upon the administration that our membership is committed to negotiating a new contract," said Maida Rosenstein, president of the UAW local that includes the NYU graduate students. "If the university refuses to deal with the union, that will create nothing but strife."
Rosenstein said she had no idea what Sexton meant by saying that the UAW had violated terms of its agreement with NYU, but she added that for the union to do its job, it had to raise issues on behalf of its members. She said, "What he's saying is that 'we love unions, but not if they do anything.' "
She stressed that the UAW was willing to go to bat for her local. "There is a commitment from every level of the union, from the very top on down," she said.
The first contract between the university and the union provided the teaching assistants with raises in their stipends and with health insurance. Rosenstein said that financial issues would be likely to dominate discussions if NYU does come to the table.
Many universities, seeking to dampen graduate students' support for unions in recent years, have made substantial increases in stipends and benefits. But Rosenstein questioned whether those gains were secure.
"Without unions, you'll see stipends eroded," she said. "The university faces varying demands for resources and where a group of workers has no union and no collective voice and no ability to systematically speak up for themselves, those resources will go in other directions."