Despite years of campaigning, unions for graduate students at private universities have been able to engage in collective bargaining at only one institution: New York University. And at NYU, the union has won significant increases in wages and benefits for teaching assistants.
On Thursday, NYU announced that it planned to stop negotiating with the United Auto Workers local  that represents the graduate students. The university said that the union had tried to interfere with academic decisions and that the university could better serve graduate students without the UAW. Simultaneously, the university announced plans to raise graduate students' stipends and to create new forums for graduate students to have their views represented.
The decision could set off a new round of labor strife at NYU. "I see them backing us into a corner where we will have no choice but to strike," said Michael Palm, a Ph.D. student at NYU and head of the union.
The debate could also divide faculty members at NYU and elsewhere. The university points to professors who -- despite being generally pro-union -- oppose collective bargaining for graduate students. The union counters with long lists of prominent faculty supporters, many of whom say that the union has improved academic life at the university for professors and graduate students alike.
Whatever happens at NYU will be closely watched by other private universities -- especially those like Columbia and Yale Universities that have vocal campaigns by graduate students to unionize. Indeed union supporters charged last night that those and other universities had pressured NYU into its position -- a charge that the university flatly denied.
Normally, an employer can't just decide it doesn't want to deal with a union that has won an election and been recognized. But the history of NYU's union coincides with the evolution of the law about collective bargaining for graduate students. At public universities, such unions are governed by state law -- and many public universities have TA unions. But private universities come under the authority of the National Labor Relations Board.
NYU recognized the union in 2002, following an NLRB ruling that said that graduate students at private universities were employees. Last year, 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 now plans to exercise -- to just walk away from the union.
Officials at NYU have been hinting for months  that they might do so. Administrators have stepped up criticism of the UAW and cited the recommendations of two university committees that also found flaws with collective bargaining.
Thursday's announcement -- which was sent via e-mail throughout the campus -- acknowledged that the union had helped graduate students. "The collective bargaining process, while challenging at times, identified issues of importance to our graduate students and produced valuable improvements," said the announcement. The major problem, according to the university, was with grievances.
According to the NYU announcement, it would never have recognized the union except for an agreement that the university thought was "ironclad" to protect the "fundamental academic management rights of our faculty." (Although the NLRB ruling in place at the time backed the union, NYU could have appealed in federal courts and other private universities wanted it to do so.) The NYU statement said that numerous grievances filed by the union "sought to undermine those academic management rights."
In the same document in which it criticized the union, NYU also pledged to "honor the spirit that propelled our students toward unionization," and to undertake a number of specific improvements in graduate students' working conditions. For example, the university said that it planned to raise stipends by $1,000 a year for the next three years, bringing them to $21,000. The university pledged to maintain health-care benefits covered by the union contract, and to work toward "predictability" in stipend and benefit levels so graduate students could plan ahead. The university also published a list of contract provisions that would remain university policy and explained the way a new council would represent graduate students.
John Beckman, a university spokesman, said that it was important to look at the full package of what NYU announced, not just the statement about collective bargaining. The university said it was seeking comments on the plan, but the language in the document is pretty firm, at least with regard to unionization.
Palm, the union head, said that the university's approach ignored a key fact: Conditions for graduate students are much better now, with a union, than they were previously. "Even the administration's reports show this. Graduate students have better stipends, benefits have gone up, relationships between faculty and students are better," he said.
The grievance issues is a false one, Palm said. He said that the grievances that have upset NYU concerned situations where employees had their job titles or duties changed. "People were being reclassified so that NYU could pay them less," Palm said. "These grievances weren't about academics. They were about economics."
Palm said that he has received assurances from the national UAW that it would back the graduate students "100 percent" and provide whatever resources are needed. Palm said that students were willing to strike, if necessary, to get NYU to continue to negotiate.
The best evidence that the grievance issue is diversionary, Palm said, is the strong faculty backing for the union. Two hundred faculty members have signed an online petition  that says that with the union, "the financial stability, health, and general well-being of our students have improved greatly, and our academic culture has been enhanced as a result."
Another group of more than 100 professors have circulated a letter that is stronger in urging the administration to continue to bargain with the UAW. This letter said that none of the signatories know of any of the cases of inappropriate grievances. And the letter warned that refusing to deal with the UAW could hurt the university.
The letter predicted that shutting down collective bargaining would result in "an immediate collapse of student and faculty morale, a loss of faith in the canons of governance, the likelihood of labor conflicts and bitter collegial divisions that will be costly and corrosive, and the staining of NYU's public reputation as an institution with its own distinct profile among major private universities."
Andrew Ross,  one of the organizers of the second letter, said that he was angry to see the university justify its decision by talking about faculty rights. "We don't believe that this decision recognizes faculty sentiment or that the university wants to recognize faculty sentiment," he said. Further, he said that it was "highly disrespectful for the university to ignore the expressed wishes of our graduate students" to be in a union.
The three years of the UAW contract, he said, "have seen an increase in the level of professionalism here and created enormous pride among students." Since the union was recognized, Ross said, the university has not only attracted better graduate students, but "they are happier."
Ross said he couldn't think of a single instance in which the union had limited faculty rights. "There's just not any credibility to that argument," he said.
Other faculty members back the administration. Paul Boghossian,  a professor of philosophy, described himself as pro-union and said that he had not experienced any direct problems because of the UAW. But he said that a union "offers a distorted conception of the relationship between graduate students and faculty."
"From where I sit, it's very hard to think of graduate students as employees," he said, which the union relationship requires. "We don't pick graduate students on the basis of them performing services. We pick them based on their potential as future philosophers."
J. Anthony Movshon,  director of the Center for Neural Science at NYU, offered a more practical critique of the union. He said that the UAW focused too much of its energy on issues such as which graduate students were covered by its contract, while other issues, in his opinion, didn't get enough attention. For example, he said that a top gripe of his graduate students is the lack of affordable housing. If the union had been able to deliver results on that issue, Movshon said, it would have gained support from science students, who tend to be less supportive of the union than are their counterparts in the humanities.
Movshon, who said he considers himself a supporter of the union movement generally, said that he does not expect most students to fight very hard for the union -- in part because of the union's own work.
"There is no doubt that the university treated its graduate students less well than it should have" before the union, he said. But the successes that the union won mean that graduate students aren't as angry as they were in the years before the UAW won recognition. "The university is going to bend over backwards not to go back to the way things were before," he said. "I think the university has a genuine commitment to a variety of the things that the union provided."
The flip side of that argument is that there is a link between that commitment and the demand for a union.
"Would the administration be increasing student stipends by $1,000 over each of the next three years, talking at such length about the graduate student voice at NYU, and expounding so forcefully about the need for a workable grievance procedure for graduate students were it not for the union's achievements on all these fronts?" asked Jeff Goodwin,  a professor of sociology. Those gains didn't come from the administration having "unilateral, unconstrained administration of graduate students," said Goodwin, and that's what the university is trying to restore.