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Graduate Students Are Students

August 15, 2005

The nature of graduate assistants – students or "workers" -- has been at the heart of the graduate assistant unionization effort at a number of private universities. New York University’s unwavering position has been that graduate assistants are students, not employees, and their assistantships are financial aid to support their academic program. This has been our position even when the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise for a brief period before returning to its long-held position last summer.  In deciding whether to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers, this principle would had to have been maintained in any outcome the university embraced.  

NYU’s decision not to renegotiate a new contract with the UAW cannot be separated from the history of its experience with the UAW over the course of the original contract. In 2001 when NYU signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers and gave up its right to take the matter to court, the university took a leap of faith: We relied on an understanding with the UAW about the need to protect core academic decision-making from collective-bargaining process. This understanding was recorded both in contract language and an accompanying letter from the UAW. These assurances formed the foundation of our agreement and were indispensable to our decision to forgo our rights to appeal the decision at that time. 

However, contrary to their commitment, the UAW sought to obtain authority through the grievance process over academic matters that they had specifically agreed were not within their purview. These grievances were not simple issues over back pay, as the union publicly proclaims. They are challenges to the kind of key academic decisions no university would subject to collective bargaining: who is appointed to teach a class, how many years graduate students can take to complete their studies, or who is a graduate assistant.  The fact that the union’s grievance attempts on these issues failed and that arbitrators strongly rejected their claims does not change the peril the grievances posed. Had an arbitrator decided against NYU, even wrongly, the decision would have had the force of law.  Moreover, these grievances reflected a fundamental lack of good faith that is compounded by the union’s efforts to recast them in their public utterances.

So, as NYU contemplated whether to enter voluntarily into a new contract, these matters weighed heavily.  The university engaged in a robust and thorough dialogue on the matter, involving many forums. Two committees -- one of faculty and the other elected University Senators -- both advised against negotiating a new contract, citing the grievances in particular, and 160 faculty members signed a letter urging the University not to sign a new contract, saying:

“For a graduate student union to be appropriate, the predominant or primary relationship between the University and its graduate students must be that of employer to employee. But that is clearly not the case...

"...[O]ur PhD students are chosen for their potential to become, after a period of intensive training lasting several years, important contributors to their academic disciplines. A part -- but not the main part -- of that training involves learning the craft of teaching, which in turn involves the often arduous tasks of grading, lecturing and interacting with students. But could anyone looking at this picture in the whole seriously maintain that the primary nature of the relationship between the University and its graduate students is that between an employer and its employees?"

Given that the UAW was already on our campus, and it was clear that many graduate assistants wanted the union to be their voice mechanism, the university took the unprecedented step of seeking to meet the UAW half-way in response to their public statements that it was willing to take the issue of grievances off the table.

Before NYU decided last week not to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers as collective bargaining representatives for its graduate students, we fashioned an offer that would have sought a middle ground, striking an important balance and creating a new paradigm. The offer provides graduate assistants with union representation on economic issues, while protecting the integrity of the academic decision-making process that is essential to graduate assistants’ primary role as students. Grievances would be addressed within the academic processes of the university and conclude with the provost, thereby ensuring that academic decisions involving graduate students are made through academic processes and based on academic norms.   

In making this offer, NYU moved farther than any other private college or university to try to reach an agreement. We were willing to enter into an agreement that would have created this new paradigm; the UAW was not. NYU wanted academic decisions to be made in an academic process; the United Auto Workers wanted academic decisions to be made by outsiders.

And so, we will implement the proposals NYU offered in June, which built in part upon the lessons we learned from our experience with unionization: $1,000 per year increase in the base stipend (currently $18,000 annually) for each of the next three years for graduate students, payment of 100 percent of student health insurance premiums, full tuition remission, and the creation of new mechanisms for graduate student voice within the NYU community, as well as a $200,000 fund for medical emergencies (a suggestion that emerged as our proposals were being considered). This will permit our graduate students to pursue their studies in an environment guided by academic norms and oriented to supporting their academic success, with the support of stipends and benefits that are guaranteed.

Each university will necessarily make its own decision as it confronts calls for unionizing graduate assistants. NYU’s history will probably be instructive to many, and  the UAW’s rejection of our offer will likely come to be seen as a singular lost opportunity:  that a union could not bring itself to embrace a new paradigm, preferring instead to rely upon a traditional employer/employee labor model that has proven to be ill-suited for an academic environment.  

Bio

John Beckman is vice president for public affairs at New York University. (An article by a member of the TA union at NYU, defending the United Auto Workers, appeared on Inside Higher Ed last week.)

 

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