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In a hot, crowded second-floor meeting room of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, Sweeney addressed some 400 university employees and students on the school's current labor problems.
Sweeney, 66, has been credited with reviving the American labor movement by galvanizing young people with his call for new organizing efforts among low-wage immigrant workers and educated white-collar employees.
He was on NYU's turf to lend support to a more or less old-fashioned contract battle being waged on behalf of the school's 1600 clerical and technical workers by Local 3882 of the American Federation of Teachers, whose contract expires October 31. While the union hasn't struck since 1988, it is demanding higher wages and benefits and a union security clause to increase the bargaining unit's clout.
Local 3882 is already the beneficiary of stepped-up pro-union sentiment on campus generated by the Graduate Students Organizing Committee, which has been fighting to win union representation for some 1700 graduate teaching assistants.
This spring the group, which is affiliated with the United Automobile Workers (the Voice's union), won a potentially precedent-setting ruling by the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which found that most graduate aides are employees. That definition has been fiercely resisted by NYU, which has appealed the decision to the central board in Washington. The notion of graduate students winning union representation has so alarmed private university officials that four national college organizations have filed amicus briefs with the board opposing the ruling, as have Columbia, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale universities.
Ballots cast in April by more than 1000 graduate students on whether or not to unionize have been impounded pending the appeal.
For unions, the graduate organizing drive is exactly the kind of expanded labor activity that Sweeney has sought to generate. It carries the potential for thousands of new union members, as well as the possibility of imbuing a whole new generation of students with a pro-union bias that could be carried forward through the rest of their careers.
Sweeney doesn't look the part of labor militant. He is portly with a fringe of silver hair circling a balding dome. The son of a Bronx transit worker, he is given to plain black suits, and while he laces his talks with fierce words, his delivery is in the quiet, courteous tones of a parish priest.
In an almost sorrowful voice, Sweeney told the crowd at Judson that "this institution which is supposed to teach higher values is doing the opposite. . . . We will fight as long as it takes to bring this arrogant university to justice," a statement that brought many in the crowd to their feet cheering.
Sweeney also added a different threat. NYU was not only earning the enmity of the AFL-CIO's 66 unions, he said, but also that of "the 40 million children in union households."
That could be an unsettling notion to a school with 35,000 students, one whose growing reputation as one of the nation's premier private institutions brings it applications from all over the world. With 9400 employees, school officials insist they are not antilabor, pointing to contracts with seven separate unions. As the first private university to be confronted with graduate student unionization, it is merely proceeding cautiously on an uncharted path, they say.
"What's the part that's arrogant?" asked university spokesman John Beckman. "The unions publicly said that if the decision went against them at the regional board they would appeal. This is a national issue and deserves to be reviewed by the five-member policy board in Washington."
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said one union organizer at the Judson Church rally.