New York University is once again center stage in the legal and policy debate over whether graduate teaching assistants at private universities can form unions.
On Tuesday, the United Auto Workers announced that it was formally asking the university to recognize a union of graduate research and teaching assistants, and that -- if the recognition is not offered -- the union will ask the National Labor Relations Board to order an election. The union said that more than half of the university's 1,800 teaching and research assistants have signed authorization cards requesting a union and that those cards have been certified by the American Arbitration Association.
NYU is not expected to recognize the union.
The request to the NLRB is expected to prompt the board to reconsider the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize. The Bush-era NLRB rejected that right. But new appointees to the NLRB by President Obama are sympathetic to such collective bargaining, and the new chair of the board this month gave a speech in which she invited unions  to challenge the prior ruling and strongly suggested it would be reversed.
If the NLRB does reverse its past decision, many other private universities could see organizing drives.
The fight at NYU is likely to renew the debate over whether graduate teaching assistants should be seen as employees (who would be entitled to unionize) or students (who would not). But the debate could also be quite different from past union drives. It will take place after NYU and other private universities have upped substantially their pay and benefits for graduate teaching assistants, but it will also come amid an economic downturn that has complicated finances for many universities and left many graduate students without great job prospects.
Both sides came out with strong statements Tuesday -- with the UAW talking about strong levels of backing from graduate students, and the university talking about strong levels of (financial) backing it has given to the graduate students.
Why NYU Matters
For a variety of reasons, NYU has become the place where battle lines are drawn on private university TA unions. (The NLRB has authority over only private institutions, so the right of public university graduate students is governed by state laws, many of which permit collective bargaining. Many prominent public universities outside of the South have unionized graduate students.)
In the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s, graduate students at a number of private universities organized to seek collective bargaining. The students complained of low stipends, poor benefits, lack of due process and a range of other grievances.
Universities generally argued that the graduate students should be considered students, not employees, and thus not eligible for collective bargaining, but the NLRB rejected that argument in 2000. Many private universities hoped for a court challenge to that ruling, but NYU in 2002 became the first (and, to date, only) private university to recognize a grad student union. It negotiated a contract with the UAW unit at the university.
In 2004, however, the NLRB -- at that time with a Republican majority appointed by President Bush -- reversed its 2000 ruling, and found that graduate students could not be viewed as employees. In 2005, NYU announced that it would not negotiate a new contract with the UAW  and that it believed the union relationship had not been productive for the university.
The union went on strike  in November of that year, hoping to force the university to recognize the union -- even without NLRB requiring that it do so. The strike was highly visible at the beginning, but gradually lost force and officially ended in September 2006,  without NYU recognizing the union. During the period that NYU did have a union, the university increased stipends and benefits significantly -- as did many other private universities without unions. It was an era of relative prosperity for private universities, and many (including NYU) freely admitted that past treatment of graduate students hadn't been adequate.
For academic labor, reversing the 2004 NLRB ruling has been a top goal -- though hopes that an Obama-appointed NLRB would do so were put on hold when Senate Republicans blocked votes on the president's nominations. But President Obama made recess appointments to the board in March, setting up speculation about which private university would see the union challenge first. The UAW never left NYU, so that has been considered one possibility. At the University of Chicago,  graduate students are currently reviewing which national union (if any) they want to affiliate with. The graduate students at NYU will probably first seek a determination from an NLRB regional office. If that office cites the 2004 ruling, an appeal would then be filed with the national board, setting up a possible reversal of the 2004 ruling.
The Arguments This Year
In the official announcement of the union push, the UAW's national secretary-treasurer, Elizabeth Bunn, blasted NYU, saying that the university has "consistently fought [students'] right to join a union. It’s time for NYU to reject its shameful past and join with us in recognizing [that] workers’ rights are human rights."
In an interview, one of the graduate student organizers -- Kari Hensley -- said that graduate students are "in a precarious position at NYU, subject to the university's whims." Hensley, a doctoral student in media culture and communications, said that a union was important "so we can have a democratic say in things like pay, health benefits, and general working conditions."
NYU's initial statement suggested a possible strategy for the university in which it might argue that, even if the NLRB finds that private university student teaching assistants could be considered employees, NYU's students might differ from others in that many don't have to work.
The statement, from the NYU spokesman John Beckman, said that the union demands were "a bit of a puzzle to us" because the university has in recent years "eliminated teaching assistantships and graduate assistantships for most graduate students and replaced these with fellowships, which do not include any responsibilities such as teaching."
This is in contrast to the last time the graduate students organized, when just about all graduate students had to take on teaching duties as part of their aid packages. Further, Beckman's statement noted that those who opt to become teaching assistants are eligible to join NYU's adjunct union, and that the pay they receive comes on top of tuition remission worth more than $50,000 a year, stipends of more than $22,000 a year, and health insurance.
Beckman's statement added: "The university has always believed that graduate students are students, not workers -- they are admitted as students, not hired as workers. To our mind, with the changes of the last few years, their identity as students has become even clearer.”
Asked about the NYU suggestion that the graduate students couldn't be called employees if they don't have to hold teaching jobs, Hensley questioned the assumption that they don't have to work. She said that even if graduate students aren't officially required to work, "we are expected to work" by professors who make it clear that they want to see the teaching take place. She said that in some cases, students are working "voluntarily," and that this kind of work without pay is a problem she believed a union would remedy.
As for the adjunct union, Hensley said that graduate students and adjuncts -- while allied -- have different interests and need different unions. The adjunct union at NYU is also affiliated with the UAW and is backing the graduate students'  efforts to have their own collective bargaining unit.
Beckman, the NYU spokesman, said that despite what Hensley said about students feeling that they were expected to work, they don't have to. "Once again, I am a little puzzled," he said. "A fellowship is a fellowship -- it does not involve assistance responsibilities or the expectation of assistantship responsibilities."
Other unions are expected to back the effort at NYU. Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers, which has more than 25,000 graduate student members at public universities, issued an e-mail statement Tuesday pledging support to the NYU students and predicting a shift at the NLRB. "With a new majority on the NLRB, it is high time to overturn that wrongheaded decision. AFT will participate actively in that struggle and offer assistance to graduate employees both public and private universities seeking the benefits of unionization," he said.
Many signs on Tuesday pointed to an intense fight over unionization, but one observer said that there may be room for compromise.
Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, said he does not rule out a deal between NYU and the union. "We shouldn't forget that they did have a contract and did negotiate," he said. Much may depend, he said, on how the lawyers for the university see their chances in the months ahead.
If NYU does negotiate, Boris said that he thinks the key issues are likely to be non-financial -- "issues of due process and of being at the table for decisions." He said that NYU's strategy as an institution includes attracting top graduate students, and so the university is likely to push to be competitive on stipends with or without the union, "because it wants to be in the higher reaches of the American academy."