New York University on Friday offered the union seeking to organize graduate students something it has long sought: The university said it would stop legal proceedings seeking to block an election on a union for teaching assistants, and that it would respect the results of the election and negotiate a contract, should graduate students vote for the union.
But there was a key condition attached: NYU would do so only if the United Auto Workers unit seeking to unionize graduate students ends its efforts with regard to research assistants.
On Saturday, a spokesman for the UAW said that the union has no intention of doing so, and characterized NYU's offer as "a public relations move."
While the apparent rejection of the NYU offer means that the dispute will remain where it has been -- before the National Labor Relations Board  -- the action represents a shift by the university, which has been insisting that it could not accept a graduate student union of any type. Many other private universities have backed NYU's prior position, from which it has now deviated, and many graduate students at private universities have looked to the fight before the NLRB as a path for them to unionize as well. Currently, no graduate student unions exist at private universities, although NYU once had one.
The move by NYU also comes at a time when the university's political position has arguably worsened. As this round of fights over graduate unions moved to the NLRB in President Obama's first term, the Senate was refusing to confirm the president's nominees for the board, and lawsuits challenged decisions made by appointees the president had made in recess appointments, which bypass the confirmation process.
But in July, the Senate confirmed Obama nominees to the board, meaning that it now has a quorum and its decisions can't be challenged based on questions of its authority. And the Obama appointees are expected to be sympathetic to graduate student unions.
The letter sent by NYU to the UAW said that it was making this offer prior to the expected ruling that could be coming from the NLRB on the union's push for a vote on a graduate student union at the university. The letter says that NYU believes it and the UAW could negotiate a contract for teaching assistants, but not research assistants. The letter added, however, that "research assistants (RAs) represent a far thornier set of academic issues -- their responsibilities as RAs are directly tied to their research and their pursuit of their degrees."
NYU's graduate student aid packages for Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences -- where graduate students would be likely to work as TAs but not RAs -- do not require students to teach. NYU's position, until Friday, was that graduate students who opt to teach at NYU could join the adjunct union but could not unionize separately as graduate students.
John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said in an interview that the university has previously floated the idea of going ahead with a vote on a teaching assistants' union, but not a research assistants' union, but decided to do so now in a more formal way. He also noted that NYU's past experience with graduate student unions has been with teaching assistants, not research assistants.
"We spent a good deal of 2012-13 consulting with various schools and faculties and departments at NYU to get a sense of where people were," he said. "There wasn't a lot of sentiment for fighting it out on the issue of TAs, not a lot of sentiment for a prolonged and tough struggle."
But there was "a considerably higher level of concern" about a union for research assistants. "The work the RAs do is for their own degree," and is part of their training, he said.
Asked if NYU was changing its position because of the shifts on the NLRB, Beckman said that the university had another goal. "We want to be clear to NYU and the union that the issue to us is not unionization per se, but RAs being unionized because that veers into academic territory in a way that is a much greater challenge for us."
Matt Canfield, a doctoral student in anthropology at NYU and one of the leaders of the UAW effort there, called NYU's offer "a public relations move," adding that it was based on "arbitrary distinctions" between teaching assistants and research assistants. "I think anyone who is doing work as a research assistant would describe it as work," he said.
Further, Canfield said, the nature of the research assistant-professor relationship illustrates why graduate students need unions. "Their faculty mentors are also their bosses," he said.
To accept a union for teaching assistants while giving up on one for research assistants would be "selling people down the river," he said.
The Case Before the NLRB
For some time now, the drive to unionize graduate students at NYU has had significance far beyond Greenwich Village. The NLRB has switched back and forth on whether graduate students have a right to unionize, with the board opting under Republican presidents to find that graduate students are primarily students and thus not eligible. Under Democratic-appointed boards, the NLRB has affirmed the right to unionize, but to date only NYU graduate students have -- briefly -- been able to exercise that right. (The right of graduate students at public universities to unionize is governed by state laws, and many states outside the South have permitted such unions for years.)
In 2002, NYU became the only private university to recognize a TA union. At the time, the relevant NLRB ruling recognized the right of graduate students to collective bargaining. After that decision was reversed in 2004, NYU regained the right to reject collective bargaining, and it did so in 2005.  The union went on strike to try to force the university to recognize it, but the strike fizzled out.
The NLRB is currently considering reversing that 2004 ruling.
Higher education associations that have urged the NLRB to back NYU  have said that they want unions banned for teaching assistants and research assistants. A brief field by the American Council on Education said: "The student-faculty relationship is not a static one: Progress in demonstrating a master of subject areas must be guided and monitored and, ultimately a degree awarded, based on academic, not labor standards. Teaching assignments and research requirements for a dissertation are an integral part of doctorate programs and involve quintessentially academic concerns. An improvident exercise of NLRB's jurisdiction over these matters inevitably would harm the universities' core education mission."
And Brown University, another private institution where some graduate students want to unionize, says in its brief that it is "no exaggeration to state that the future of American private graduate education is at stake in these cases." The brief explained that, "for graduate students at Brown, both teaching and research are required educational components of their departmental curriculum.... Characterizing graduate students in such fully integrated programs as 'employees' would undermine the fundamental nature and purpose of this model of graduate education."
Canfield noted that the NYU graduate students were well aware that their actions could affect their counterparts elsewhere. Since the UAW believes it will eventually win the right for elections for both teaching and research assistants, it would not want to make a deal with NYU that "would make it more difficult for research assistants at other universities to organize."