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Grad Students Battle NYU Over Right to Organize a Union

Any day now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is expected to decide whether some 1400 graduate students who prepare and teach classes, grade papers, and provide general assistance—everything from tracking down rare books and making slides to watering plants and ordering food for office shindigs—at New York University are ‘workers.’

For four years, graduate assistants (GAs) have been talking about unionizing. The university, on the other hand, has fought them every step of the way, arguing that the students are apprentices, not workers, and that the establishment of their proposed union would introduce a foreign element into an admirably flexible self-regulating body. The stakes are high. A graduate student union at NYU—which would be the first at a private university in the nation—would spell major changes in American higher education: the introduction of collective bargaining, the penetration of the labor movement into the professional classes, and the opening of a debate about the very nature of a university in an economy dominated by the corporate impulse to shrink a full-time labor force with benefits in favor of cheap part-time labor with none.

NYU's Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) is aligned with the United Auto Workers (UAW, which also represents workers at The Village Voice). The students are asking for better wages, paid health care, and housing subsidies. There are unions at public universities such as the Universities of California and Michigan, which are governed by state rather than federal law. In a well-publicized case, Yale University's GAs went on strike in 1995 with similar demands and were defeated, but their case was recently reopened. Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history and Africana studies, believes that the union would challenge "the myth that the university doesn't mirror corporate structure, that graduate students don't work, that faculty aren't employees. NYU has a chance to break out and define what the 21st-century university could be," says Kelley, "but without a vision you cannot create a new model."

Protesters rally against NYU in Washington Square Park.
photo: Annie Chia
Protesters rally against NYU in Washington Square Park.

The university has hired Proskauer, Rose (the law firm that Yale used in defeating its grad students' attempt to unionize) to block the GAs' efforts and sent the faculty a letter (as Yale did) coaching them about how to discuss the union with students. Why is the NYU administration bent on resisting a graduate student union? Because not only are the costs of paying GAs better wages and offering health and housing benefits at issue—but also how the university is run. "Essentially [the union] is introducing another organization to deal with key academic issues," says Robert Berne, vice president for academic development. "Who's going to be teaching in the classrooms, what the requirements of a graduate degree will be—I think we can address those issues ourselves." NYU perceives the union as an interloper and worries that uniform hiring standards will be imposed on departments whose needs differ widely. Likewise, it fears that the mentor relationship between faculty and students will be compromised.

Jason Patch, a third-year Ph.D. student in sociology, argues that the union is "not somebody else, it's us." He entered union discussions two years ago after having had "many opportunities to deal with the administration's clublike bureaucracy" and after health problems left him in a "grim" situation. Patch claims that each attempt to discuss the GAs' situation with administrators veered into conversations about the philosophy of education and how to grade papers well, rather than how to pay for rent, transportation, and health care. These problems are acute for many foreign students who attend NYU and are legally forbidden to work outside the university. "UC Berkeley and Wisconsin are unionized, and we've seen no detrimental effects," Patch says. "NYU is making a killing and they can't provide us with subsidized housing?"

NYU's introductory packet for incoming graduate students tells them that they need $18,000 minimum annually to live in New York City. GA compensation varies widely, from $6000 (School of Education) to $18,000 (Leonard N. Stern School of Business). They must pay their own health insurance ($1000 for a single student, $5000 for a family) and if they don't share university housing with another student (hard for those who have a spouse) they are on their own. Without a trust fund or additional fellowships, their jobs at the university are necessary for survival. Their work, in turn, keeps the university thriving. "NYU is on the line for all private universities," says Kitty Krupat, a Ph.D. student in American studies, "to maintain this fantasy that graduate students are living in some rarefied world that doesn't correspond to the world of work."

The discussion of GAs unionizing goes to the heart of what a university is. Is it preparing students to be workers in the world both within the ivory tower and without? Is it a place where issues of social justice are applied to a multitude of situations? To be a competitor in the academic marketplace for students, faculty, grants, and prestige, NYU keeps labor costs down by employing part-time workers, adjunct professors, and GAs. By cutting costs the university can arguably pay more for celebrity faculty and thus attract students with higher SATs. Competitive pressure is not unique to NYU, and many students and faculty welcome the university's rise in stature from a commuter college to a national research institution. While faculty may think this is good, they also sense their own waning influence upon university policy, with the union issue the most recent evidence.

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