Worth Fighting For
Graduate students at NYU and other private institutions need collective bargaining -- and their universities would benefit as well, writes J.P. Leary.
On August 4, three weeks before its historic first contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee was set to expire, New York University announced that it would no longer recognize its teaching assistants’ union. The decision was not a surprise -- NYU has been campaigning against the union since last fall. So why wait so long to make this official announcement? NYU’s plans are not popular on our campus, and it preferred to reveal its intentions over summer break, when the university is nearly empty.
In 2001, NYU became the first private university in the nation to recognize a union of its grad student employees, who perform essential teaching, administrative, and research jobs on campus. (Graduate unions have existed for decades at many public institutions nationwide.) NYU’s graduate students elected to affiliate with UAW local 2110, a union that represents office and professional workers (our local includes workers at the Museum of Modern Art and The Village Voice).
Students negotiated a contract with the university that increased wages by an average of 40 percent and, for the first time ever, guaranteed full health coverage and office space for some of the primary teachers of NYU undergraduates. The contract also set maximum weekly work hours, which helped keep classes small and prevented the university from overburdening individual TA's to cut costs. My older brother, now a doctoral candidate in cinema studies and one of the first members of GSOC, earned $10,000 per year and had no health insurance as a TA. He had to take on as many as two extra jobs while he taught in order to pay rent in New York City, which can easily exceed $10,000 per year. The improvements in graduate student life only came about because students organized a union to demand them. I have no reason to expect that NYU will, as some in the administration have put it, "take care of us" without one.
In April, a majority of graduate students signed a petition to NYU President John Sexton asking for new contract negotiations, and more than 200 full-time faculty have since done the same. Despite this broad support, NYU insists on opposing GSOC for only one major reason: it argues that a union will interfere with "academic decision-making" -- decisions, for example, about who will teach which class and what they will put on the syllabus. The fact that NYU can cite no convincing examples that any such union meddling has ever happened over the course of the contract has not stopped its lawyers from repeatedly raising these issues in the anti-union emails with which they regularly bombard the entire campus. Often authored by university lawyers Terry Nolan and Cheryl Mills, these long-winded odes to the life of the mind argue quaintly that union representation is incompatible with the "academic values" of a university.
According to this view, the university is a sanctuary from the workaday world -- fair negotiations over wages, benefits, and terms of employment are the kind of vulgarities that belong at a lumberyard, not the sacrosanct university campus. In April, Mills and Nolan wrote that unions are "familiar with industrial work environments; they are not familiar with academic decision-making within universities.” This is a foolish claim that should surprise any member of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 130,000 professors and academic professionals across the country, including those in New York City’s public university system -- not to mention our UAW colleagues at the Universities of California, Massachusetts, and Washington.
NYU’s charges of UAW interference in "academic decision-making" focus on the grievance procedure that students negotiated in our contract. This is a standard provision of any union pact, including teaching unions, because it allows employees (and employers) to enforce their contracts. Currently, disputes not settled at these earlier stages will be decided by an independent arbitrator. NYU has now proposed a grievance procedure in which all grievances not settled at the not resolved at the departmental or school level would be "fully and finally" decided by the provost, which would effectively give the university the last word on all the terms of our employment.
GSOC has filed grievances when grad students have come to the union with real problems with employment issues. For example, a graduate student I know taught a class for which she was never paid. The dispute was settled only after she filed a grievance for back pay. The grievance procedure exists precisely to resolve cases like this, not to protest unpopular teaching assignments or rearrange course syllabi. Of course, GSOC members do not win every case; nor does the university. Even so, when NYU insisted that our grievances were the main obstacle to negotiating a second union contract, GSOC offered to withdraw any grievance the university found problematic. NYU rejected this offer at compromise, and then announced its decision not to negotiate with the union.
So what makes graduate assistant unions so important for college education today? For one thing, they are one bulwark against the streamlining of undergraduate education -- a business model of cost-cutting that is eroding the quality of a college education precisely when it is growing more expensive — over $31,000 a year at NYU. Most undergraduates at big universities today will only occasionally encounter a tenured faculty member during their studies. According to David Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, at NYU today at least 70 percent of undergraduate classes are taught by overworked and undervalued, yet talented and dedicated, graduate assistants and part-time or adjunct faculty, simply because this is the cheapest way to shuttle students through their degree programs. This is one reason why NYU objects to our union.
The university has hidden behind last year's partisan 3-2 decision by the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board, which overturned its own precedent that graduate assistants were employees legally entitled to join a union. NYU contends that this decision validates its counterintuitive claim that paid teaching assistants are students, and not employees. We are, quite obviously, both. Yet the votes of three political appointees in Washington should not outweigh those of hundreds of graduate students at NYU.
The university's decision-making process on unionization has in this way been taken completely out of students’ and faculty’s hands. Administrators made their decision over the summer, and only asked for “comments” from the university community afterwards. A campus "town hall meeting" with President Sexton was scheduled for a mid-July Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after the university had already announced preliminary plans to oppose the TA union.
NYU did solicit professors’ opinions on GSOC -- but again, only after the decision had already been made public. In response, Faculty Democracy, a newly-formed group of over 100 professors from a variety of disciplines, wrote President Sexton an angry letter calling NYU’s deliberations on GSOC "a mockery of process."
When one gets down to the bare facts, NYU has simply behaved like any big company fighting its employees. Yet graduate students are not the only ones that stand to lose if NYU succeeds in eliminating a union that many students and professors agree has benefited both graduate and undergraduate education here. If NYU’s undergraduates really are a priority of this university anymore, it is crucial that their primary teachers have a manageable teaching load, job security, and the respect of their employers. Once again, it has fallen to teaching assistants and their adjunct colleagues to remind NYU administrators of the real "academic values" of the university: to teach students.
J.P. Leary is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at New York University and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.
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