NYU's Labor Pains

The UAW Organizes Grad Students

Last April, the Regional Directorate of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate assistants at NYU were entitled to decide by election whether they wished to organize a union under the auspices of the United Auto Workers. The union, if established, would enable the student assistants to engage in collective bargaining with the university over issues such as financial aid, health insurance, and housing. Following the NLRB's decision, NYU's eligible graduate assistants held their union election.

Simultaneously, NYU, which is opposed to the formation of a union, filed an appeal of the regional NLRB's decision with the NLRB in Washington, D.C. By the NLRB's own rules this meant that the election ballots had to be impounded, pending a decision on the appeal. So, no one knows yet what the election results are, or when the NLRB will rule on the appeal. For now, then, NYU and the would-be union—the Graduate Student Organizing Committee—are in agitated limbo.

The GSOC's latest move has been to file charges of unfair labor practices against the university for attempting to influence student votes by (1) making threats to international graduate assistants about their visa status and their future eligibility for green cards; and (2) improving graduate student benefit packages before the election.

In a September 7 campus-wide memo, NYU provost Harvey J. Stedman maintained that NYU had been planning changes to graduate student financial aid for a long time. Fine. But the rest of the memo is a little disingenuous. Stedman says that NYU appealed the NLRB's decision on two grounds. First, it questioned the notion that graduate assistants are employees. Fair enough. But— and here's the part you can't read with a straight face—the second concern related to the NLRB's decision that certain research assistants in the sciences were not employees. The memo calls this "an exclusion that concerns the university greatly." So, let's get this straight. The university doesn't think any of its assistants should be able to form a union, but it's concerned that some of them are being prevented from doing so? Hmm.

Now, don't get me wrong. The university has noncontradictory reservations about the unionizing of its grad assistants, although it hasn't always been particularly good at stating them. However, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Catharine Stimpson, did convincingly explain her opposition to a union in The Chronicle of Higher Education back in May. There Stimpson sounded the by-now-familiar refrain that graduate students are not employees. She also expressed her dismay about what "adversarial" collective bargaining would do to "the social contract between the university and graduate students." While she reiterated her willingness to address graduate student grievances, she questioned their core complaint: money. She didn't, however, include the figures.

Here they are. Graduate assistants at NYU get anywhere between $8000 and $20,000 a year, plus tuition remission. In return, they are expected to work 20 hours per week, for a total of 30 weeks out of the year. That comes to 600 hours per year, which means that students are making anywhere from $13.33 to $33.33 per hour. Hardly slave wages. Remember, too, that they've still got 22 weeks per year when school is out, during which they can work other jobs to supplement their incomes. It's true, out of their stipends they've got to buy health insurance and pay rent. But, even by union organizer Lisa Jessup's figures, these costs are not onerous. NYU rents studios to students for $900 per month—which, in this market, is a good deal—and offers health insurance at $700 per person, per year. (In the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—which engages the largest number of graduate assistants—NYU covers $400 of the $1191 it charges unsubsidized students.)

Graduate students aren't living large, but—with access to all the facilities the university has to offer, and the option to earn money elsewhere—they're not living like beggars. Plus, Dean Stimpson is hardly "the man." She's always been proactive about improving graduate students' lives.

Meanwhile, the unselfish union, whose only concern is purportedly social justice, has a vested interest in organizing the students. At dues of 1.5 percent of earnings per member, and with 1400 students eligible for membership, the union stands to gain anywhere between $168,000 to $420,000 per year. Not peanuts, and from poor students, to boot.

The good guy/bad guy scenario turns out to be more complex than it first appears.

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