End of the Picket Line

Experts consider why a strike failed to get NYU to recognize a union -- even as graduate students seek new strategies to win collective bargaining.
September 8, 2006

"How long will the strike last?"

"The duration of the strike is in many ways up to NYU. The sooner the administration agrees to bargain with us in good faith, the sooner the strike will end. It's important for the administration to understand that we want a contract and that we are not going away."

That question and answer are from the FAQ of the Web site of Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers, which organized a strike of teaching assistants at New York University for the last 10 months. This week, the relatively few teaching assistants who had still been honoring the strike agreed to return to their teaching assignments, ending the strike without a contract or NYU's recognition of the graduate students' right to collective bargaining.

With the strike over, without the union having achieved its goal, several questions are raised: Why did the strike fail to sway NYU? Can the union succeed in its goal of regaining recognition? What is the fallout from NYU for efforts to unionize graduate students elsewhere, and especially at private universities?

Organizers of the strike insist that their return to their TA jobs is in no way a defeat. "The decision not to be on strike right now is a logistical and strategic one," said Michael Palm, a graduate student who is head of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. He said that the union needed to reach out to new NYU graduate students and to plan its strategy going ahead, which he said might well include another strike. "It's very unlikely we'll get a contract without a major job action," he said.

Palm, who is among the union organizers back working as a TA, said "for many of us it was discouraging to return to work without a contract," but he said it was wrong to characterize the shift in tactics as a loss for the union. "We don't know exactly what our next move will be yet," he said. "But it's clear that the UAW is here to stay."

While other union supporters agree with Palm that the battle will continue, several noted that victories in the labor movement can take longer than the time a graduate student spends at a university. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, believes the graduate students will eventually win and he was arrested as part of a protest to back them. But he noted that at his home campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it took graduate students 12 years to win a union, and in the fight at Yale University (unsuccessful to date), Nelson worked with graduate organizers who are now tenured professors elsewhere.

Others think that the NYU strike is a major setback, if perhaps predictable, for the movement to unionize graduate students at private universities. That movement appeared to be gaining momentum a few years ago, when the National Labor Relations Board was sympathetic (as is no longer the case), and organizing drives were growing.

"This is certainly a setback," said Richard Boris, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at City University of New York’s Hunter College. "It's a setback for the union movement in general and specifically for this cohort of students at NYU." Given that the "balance of resources here was always lopsided," Boris said the result was not surprising. "There was a long term commitment by NYU to outlast them."

Many labor experts who deal with academe were reluctant to talk on the record about the strike's outcome. Some -- including those who are critical of NYU for refusing to negotiate with the union -- think that the UAW didn't see how long the odds were for success in the current political environment. NYU is also unique in higher ed labor relations. It was the only private university to ever recognize a TA union.

John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, said that unionization "has not proved to be a good fit with graduate education, and NYU has the unique experience of having tried making it work before reaching that conclusion." Others said that they didn't want the NYU strike's end to hurt organizing efforts or contract negotiations at the many public universities where graduate unions are part of life.

From a variety of sources -- for and against the organizing union -- several key reasons were cited why the strike didn't achieve a contract:

Bush appointees on the NLRB: The NLRB's 2004 finding that graduate students at private universities weren't entitled to collective bargaining doesn't preclude NYU or any private university from recognizing a TA union, but it ensured that other private universities wouldn't go that route right now, and gave NYU the option it took of not dealing with the union. "Collective bargaining reflects power politics and the legal and political environment, and you are seeing the result of that," said Daniel J. Julius, provost of Benedictine University, who is an academic expert on labor relations and has negotiated contracts for state college systems. On the question of whether graduate students should have unions, he said "that there are people of good will on both sides." But with the NLRB saying private universities don't have to recognize TA unions, and not one private university doing so voluntarily, "it was a very, very tough road."

Rhetorical allies: A who's who of New York State Democratic politicians -- from City Council members to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- have signed letters backing the union and urging NYU to negotiate with it. Privately, some close to the union say that a key part of the UAW strategy was to have those political allies put real pressure on NYU, making sure that building permits didn't come through, refusing to sign off on favorable legislation, and so forth. By and large -- according to these union sources -- these politicians were strong on rhetoric, but didn't do much more, and feared that actions against NYU would offend other constituents (students, their tuition-paying parents and so forth). So NYU didn't face nearly as much pressure as the UAW had hoped.

Victims of their own success: Several NYU sources said that a central problem facing the UAW was that in many respects, it did a great job in improving the lives of graduate students. Graduate students at the university, they said, used to be miserable, feeling that they were grossly underpaid, lacked basic benefits, and had no rights. That environment was fertile for UAW organizing 10 years ago. Today, while graduate students at NYU would like more money and benefits and rights, there is not the pervasive sense of oppression that used to exist, and that produced many strong union supporters. And because the graduate student body changes every year, many graduate students today never experienced the pre-UAW life of a graduate student at NYU and so don't have the same appreciation for what the union accomplished. One union-sympathetic NYU source who asked not to be named said that one of the smartest things the NYU administration did in refusing to deal with the union was crediting the union with improving the pay and benefits graduate students receive. If the university had said that everything had always been wonderful, it would have lost credibility, the source said.

A tough city for the UAW: People think of New York City as a liberal place and as a union town, but that doesn't mean it was the ideal place for a battle over TA union rights. Nelson, the AAUP president, said that in his book Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (published by NYU Press), he discusses the ideal place for academic labor to make breakthroughs and his focus isn't a Red State/Blue State analysis but one focused on size. The way  for an academic union to win, he writes, is to have strong support from all the unions in town, so that no deliveries get made and so forth (something that would happen only in a community where graduate students could win backing by helping out other unions). And he envisions strategies such as all the striking academics and their supporters saying that they will take their shopping to the next town, so all of the sudden local merchants are upset. None of this works in New York City, he said. And it didn't seem to him that the union had the "level of solidarity" with other unions so that NYU would "feel the pressure."

Divisions in the ranks: Given the various advantages that NYU had in facing the strike, several union observers said that the UAW's best shot was a truly united graduate student body and faculty -- and it had neither. From the beginning, support for the strike was stronger in some departments (generally the humanities) than others (generally the sciences). That's not unique to NYU, but it made organizing more difficult. NYU also coupled its announcement that it wasn't dealing with the union with raises and other improvements for grad students. For whatever reason, relatively few graduate students stayed out on strike, such that for some time it has not been very visible on campus. The faculty was also divided, and although the union had strong support from a vocal and prominent group of professors organized as Faculty Democracy, others were frustrated by the strike. Some proposed what they viewed as fair compromises that were rejected by the union because they fell short of full collective bargaining. Others said that they weren't convinced a union was needed. Several faculty sources said that many professors dubious of the union were happy to let the administration play "bad cop" on the issue, and that they had quietly passed on that sentiment to NYU leaders. While union supporters have harsh words for the graduate students and professors who didn't support the strike, it was clear that NYU administrators knew that they were acting in an environment where not everyone backed the union. "In situations like this, you need tremendous amounts of student and faculty education," said Nelson, and while he said union supporters did some of that, "there needed to be more."

Late direction from the UAW: Officially, the NYU graduate students say that support from the national union was consistent and strong and remains that way. But several officials close to the strike said that the national didn't get involved quickly enough and that it wasn't until the spring -- when support for the strike was already weakening -- that the national UAW was visible in force. And while there was a notable improvement in organization, many at NYU said that the course of the strike was already clear by then. Palm, head of the local chapter, said that "the UAW was never going to cut and run on us." (The national UAW press office said it would consider commenting, and did not call back.)

So if some combination of those reasons (depending on who you talk to) explains why the strike didn't yield a contract, where does that leave the graduate students?

Palm said repeatedly that the graduate students are regrouping and would be back with a new strategy.

"It's not a question of the fight ending, but our union, both in terms of democracy and strategy, deciding collectively what kind of job actions we will take in the future," he said. Asked about rumors that the union would focus on trying to get political or economic pressure placed on NYU, rather than another strike, Palm said "it's not an either/or question," but a case where a variety of tactics can be used effectively.

Graduate students are resolved, Palm said, that they are in for a long fight. He noted that NYU recognized the union previously. "Our country is the kind of place right now where you have to keep fighting the fights you have already won," he said. "It's an unending fight, and it's not going to end when we get a second contract."

Mark Bostic, a national representative for the American Federation of Teachers, said that he was disappointed that NYU hadn't recognized the union, but that he thought graduate students nationally were committed to supporting their colleagues in New York. "I don't think NYU succeeded -- just because people needed to save their jobs now," he said. "Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and these are long fights."

Bostic has been involved with organizing graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, like NYU a private institutions that does not need to recognize a union and that has no plans to do so. While the NLRB has made organizing at such institutions difficult, he said, that doesn't mean unions should stop the fight. He noted that many unions today are in fields where unions didn't used to exist. "Sometimes you forget about what the law says [about there not being a right to a union] and you go out and do everything you can do," he said. "There is success in being able to stand up for yourselves."

Nelson of the AAUP said he believed it would be possible to translate that success into a union -- over time. Nelson has been in conversations with UAW leaders and he said that he could not reveal specific strategies, but that he believed there were viable new approaches to try. "NYU has some legal vulnerabilities that can be exploited," he said, declining to identify them. "We are looking at some fairly decisive economic moves this year," he said. "This is not over."

At the same time, he said, it was necessary to end the strike so that the union could regroup and focus on refining its strategy. "You do need to draw the line and move on to different activities," he said. "Obviously this tactic did not entirely succeed."

Nelson said that faculty members nationwide could help NYU graduate students by supporting organizing efforts on their own campuses. If graduate student unions become the norm, he said, it would be more difficult for NYU to hold its current position. The AAUP is also in the early stages, Nelson said, of investigating whether NYU gives adequate due process to graduate students, and of developing new strategies to promote graduate student unionization. In the meantime, he said that some faculty leaders "will feel a moral and professional responsibility" not to deal with NYU. Nelson said, for example, that he would not be an outside reviewer for an NYU tenure panel, although he quickly noted that he didn't expect NYU administrators to be seeking his opinions.

Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies at NYU and a leader of Faculty Democracy, said he also believed that the union movement would eventually win. While the strike did not lead to a contract, he said that the way NYU treated graduate students "put a terrible strain on the university, and NYU nationally and internationally has a huge black mark on it, and will continue to."

Ross said that the graduate student movement had galvanized professors there, and that his group has a broader agenda beyond the union, extending to issues of university governance and priorities. He also said that the group would soon discuss how to put more pressure on the university to deal with the UAW. Among the topics of discussion is some sort of call for "an economic boycott" of the university, but Ross said it was not yet clear how this could be done, and that this was a "highly sensitive issue."

Others -- most of them not wanting to be quoted by name -- said that many union supporters are not being forthright about the state of the movement at NYU. When you go on strike for 10 months, they said, and the number of strikers dwindles, and the strike ends without any change in the employer's position, that's a loss -- pure and simple. Several who said this and who aren't affiliated with NYU said that they did not want to be quoted at all right now because they respect the dedication and values of the union organizers.

For their part, NYU administrators declined to comment on the UAW strategy or its future moves. But Beckman was unequivocal: NYU has no intention of having its graduate students in a union. He said the fact that no private university recognizes such a union and that the majority of public universities also do not reflects the "wide body of opinion" that teaching assistants "are students, admitted for their academic potential." He noted that seven unions represent different groups of workers at the university, but that the decision of the university with regard to teaching assistants isn't going to change.

Several observers said that the long-term impact of the NYU union movement -- and the push for better conditions for graduate students generally -- may be gains for graduate students, even where unions aren't recognized. Yale, for example, has substantially improved payments to graduate students while engaged in a series of bitter fights against unionization. Boris of Hunter College said that there is "no question" that conditions for graduate students have improved since unions started organizing them. The threat of union drives may be a powerful incentive, he said, for universities to continue to improve their treatment of graduate students.

Julius, of Benedictine, said it was important "not to be too sweeping" in viewing NYU's union drive as the future of graduate student unions. In public higher education, which isn't covered by the NLRB, unionization of graduate students is growing, and is likely to continue to grow.

Ultimately, he said, public and private universities will determine the popularity of union drives by how they treat their graduate students. "The underlying causes that foster unionization at many campuses have not gone away," he said. "Until those underlying causes are addressed, you'll continue to have a unionization movement, because it's those clauses that are making graduate students into employees."


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