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.”
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.
More than 125 faculty members signed a letter complaining that they had not been consulted when NYU announced its resolution to oppose the union. “From year to year,” the letter reads, “we lose more and more of our capacity to shape institutional policy and exercise academic freedoms.” Andrew Ross, director of American studies, says, “Our speech was compromised in a way that could have adversely affected faculty-student relations.”
While the administration insists that the union question is still open, students in the history and sociology departments, in particular, have complained that in meetings with Catharine Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), their questions have been ignored or answered evasively.
“These are big questions,” Dean Stimpson replies. “What does it mean to be listened to? Is it entering into a conversation of mutuality or getting what you want?” Stimpson, a distinguished feminist scholar, believes that the GAs’ life will improve with a new funding policy the university has unveiled. Beginning next fall, doctoral students in good standing will receive a minimum of $13,000 as a stipend, along with tuition remission and a subsidy toward NYU health insurance. Stimpson promises to “advocate” for affordable housing—”Financial aid is something I believe in deeply”—and says this plan has been discussed for a decade.
No graduate students will refuse the extra money, of course, but there are some who believe the administration implemented the plan abruptly to block the union (as Yale did). Faculty and students in the history department will issue a press release this week in response to the proposed changes. Their main contention is that as a result of the new policy, which implies that new students must be fully funded, the number of students they can accept will decrease significantly. They foresee this altering the diversity of the departments—with part-time and partially funded students being discouraged. The hardest hit are likely to be smaller departments: Latin American, Asian, and African diaspora studies.
Dean Stimpson says that the connection between the new funding policy and unionizing is “nonsense,” as is the idea that GSAS is streamlining its student body. “We are not setting a cap on the number of fully funded students who can enroll; we are setting a floor,” and it will be up to the departments to nominate students for other aid, such as the 12 “opportunity fellowships” for minorities.
NYU’s union problems, however, extend beyond the students’ issues. For some weeks, the administration has faced protests from local construction unions who want NYU to persuade developer Alex Forkosh, who is building an NYU dorm, to use union workers. Meanwhile, Local 3882, the union that represents NYU’s 1600 clerical and technical workers, is preparing for contract negotiations. And earlier this month, under pressure from NYU No Sweat, part of a national student movement that raises awareness about sweatshops, NYU “conditionally” agreed to join the Workers Rights Consortium, allowing observers to monitor working conditions in facilities where university apparel and licensed products are manufactured. These groups are now calling on NYU to initiate a fair and just labor policy on campus as well.
On Tuesday, March 7, a 12-foot inflatable rat peered southward from Washington Square Park toward Bobst Library, where it was rumored that the NYU Board of Trustees was to meet. Some 2000 union men and women had massed to protest the Forkosh project on the northeast corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. Forkosh has been cited by OSHA for four safety violations at the site, including lack of protection to prevent workers from falling. “Construction is dangerous, so safety is part of the cost of the project,” says Anthony Pugliese, organizer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. “We hope NYU will come to their senses and incur the cost to convert this to a union project, because it’s their signature on the lease that gave Forkosh instant credibility.” At another Forkosh site, 130 West 46th Street, a worker fell nine floors to his death. At every union-run site, Pugliese points out, there is a safety inspector on duty.
At the rally, Lisa Jessup, an organizer for the UAW, spoke in fiery rhetoric about NYU: “They don’t get words like ‘greed’; they’re sitting on a billion-dollar endowment and yet they hire workers at half wages; they don’t understand words like ‘shame.’ They should be ashamed to risk one more worker’s life with Forkosh. They need to understand the word ‘rat.’ They’re not a ‘private university in the public service,’ they’re a rat corporation in the service of scabs.” A spirited crowd chanted, “Shame on you, NYU, shame on you, NYU.” Amid this call and response was an outpouring of support for the graduate students, and, for the moment, it seemed that the definition of “worker” unquestionably included blue- and white-collar alike.
NYU representatives stood along the outskirts of the park, phoning back to headquarters. A press release handed out by NYU spokesman John Beckman reads, “We are distressed that he is using non-union labor . . . but Mr. Forkosh is not building for New York University. . . . The University will be a tenant, and I think any reasonable New Yorker will understand that as a tenant, our power to insist on how Mr. Forkosh should construct the building is limited.” But then again, the average New Yorker is not one of the largest landowners and employers in the city.
By GSOC and UAW’s estimates, NYU has spent more than a half million dollars in litigation to block the union—that’s a lot of scholarships and health care benefits. It seems wrong to argue, as NYU does, that better funding obviates the need for a union. If the GAs are workers, they have a fundamental right to organize. Students and supportive faculty are confident that the NLRB will decide in the new union’s favor, citing a related decision: In November 1999, the NLRB reversed a long-standing decision and ruled that interns and residents at Boston Medical Center are employees with the right to unionize, and as a consequence the Yale case has been reopened. Momentum is gathering across the nation as students await the outcome of the GSOC-UAW case, and if they prevail, their victory will set a standard that GAs at other private universities will likely scramble to adopt.
A conference, “Labor’s Next Century: Alliances, Sweatshops, and the Global South,” will be held April 7 to 8. Call 212-998-3721.