Decision Time at NYU

A University Debates Its Future

Dark talk from employers about "outsiders" intervening in an otherwise harmonious workplace is the common language of every unionization drive. Be they steel workers or school teachers, employees are never more beloved and cherished than when a union is contesting for their affections.

Steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick called his workers "family" until 1892, when he hired hundreds of Pinkerton detectives to shoot them down.

The high-tech version was voiced last month by's Jeff Bezos. After disillusioned cyber-employees began to circulate pro-union literature among themselves, Bezos pronounced unions as unnecessary at his firm because "Everyone is an owner."

Another grim Christmas for Domino strikers: City Council speaker Peter Vallone (center) and Queens councilman John Sabini (left) brought food to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, picket line on December 22.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Another grim Christmas for Domino strikers: City Council speaker Peter Vallone (center) and Queens councilman John Sabini (left) brought food to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, picket line on December 22.

So, too, at private universities where the specter of graduate student unionization is looming large, thanks to a decision in November by the National Labor Relations Board to allow a union election by New York University grad students to go forward.

Results of a vote among the student teaching assistants quickly showed that a majority—619 to 551—wants a union in order to bring them higher wages, adequate health benefits, and a say in their workloads.

The vote was immediately translated into an attack on the very framework of academic collegiality, and the board's decision to allow the vote was denounced by other universities facing similar union threats. Loudest in their condemnation were Yale University officials, who have succeeded for almost a decade in thwarting a graduate organizing effort on their own campus.

The NLRB decision "creates a conflict between national labor policy and sound national educational policy," said Yale president Richard C. Levin.

Invoking the Frick/Bezos argument, Levin went on: "We continue to believe that the unionization of graduate student teaching and research assistants is not in the best interests of graduate students themselves, undergraduates, or faculty across the country."

Mindful that whatever happens at NYU will create both legal and tactical precedent elsewhere at private universities, Levin urged NYU to shoulder its responsibility to the academic community by refusing to talk to the union: "I would urge NYU to carry the case to the federal courts if it has the opportunity," he said.

Such is NYU's dilemma as it ponders its next move. On one side, Yale and other Ivy League militants are pushing it to hang tough, refuse to bargain, and force the union, the United Auto Workers (which also represents Voice workers), to file formal unfair labor practice charges against the university that would eventually bring the matter before the courts. On the other side, labor-friendly local political officials have urged the university to open talks with the union.

"We are hearing from some universities that would urge us to continue to adjudicate, and from elected officials to urge us to bargain," said Robert Berne, NYU's vice president for academic affairs and health, who is overseeing the issue.

Berne and other NYU officials have been sounding out faculty, staff, and students on the topic. Already, there are rumblings of change. Last week, the Faculty Council reported that a majority of members responding to a survey supported bargaining with the union.

"Our belief is that if they really do consult with the university community they will find themselves in a position where they must agree to bargain," said the UAW's Julie Kushner.

Berne said the union won't be kept waiting long for NYU's decision. "We are working to move this ahead," he said. "It should take no more than weeks into the New Year."

A Casual Future

A national graduate student employee union group threw more fuel on the fire this month with a report that found that universities are increasingly relying on part-time teachers who are paid less and are entitled to few, if any, benefits. The report was compiled by the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, which is made up of 27 graduate student unions on 63 campuses where they have won recognition. (Many state universities, protected by state legislation forbidding strikes by public employees and other laws that bar interference in the curriculum, yielded years ago to graduate unionization drives.)

The study found that the use of part-time faculty grew from 22 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 1995. Such "casualization," the report stated, "harms both educators and the education they provide because teachers lack a voice in their working conditions."

If so, teachers aren't alone. According to Jeff Grabelsky, a specialist at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations on the growing phenomenon of casual labor, the number of temporary workers tripled in the past decade, from 1 million to 3 million.

It's a rate that makes temporary labor firms the second fastest-growing sector in the labor market behind computers, according to Grabelsky. And it is a trend with severe implications for unions and working standards.

"The growing use of temporary workers is fundamentally altering the way employers interact with employees," Grabelsky said at a Cornell forum for union leaders on December 13.

The growth in temp agencies, which provide no benefits and generally lower wages, has been marked by a dramatic shift in the type of workers provided. By last year, the white-collar share of the temp workforce had fallen from 48 percent to 39 percent, while industrial and construction had grown to 35 percent.

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