The Future of Our Discontent


Last weekend’s ninth annual Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions conference at New York University was both a strategy session and a morale booster for about 100 graduate assistants from universities around the United States—and even from Canada—who convened in the main building to discuss methods for strengthening existing GAs’ unions and bolstering nascent ones.

Conference organizers attempted to address the gamut of participants’ labor concerns. Workshop topics ranged from the most effective ways to approach graduate assistants about unionizing and who should sit at bargaining tables to how to counter administrations’ antiunion campaigns and when to resort to a strike.

NYU organizers were particularly enthused, as this year marked the first time the CGEU conference was held at a private university. No private university currently has a union of graduate assistants, but for the last four years, NYU GAs have been at the forefront of a burgeoning national effort to introduce the labor movement to academia (see “Hire Education,” March 21).

According to NYU union organizer Lisa Jessup, CGEU members “walked away with a commitment, as a coalition, to throw themselves behind unions that don’t have recognition yet, such as at NYU and Yale.”

Throughout eight months of testimony before the National Labor Relations Board, the NYU administration attempted to establish a basis for denying collective-bargaining rights to graduate assistants, which include teaching and research assistants.

On April 3, the NLRB ruled that 870 NYU teaching assistants, as well as graduate and research assistants outside of the science departments and school of medicine, were entitled to vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers Local 9A. NYU appealed the decision, and the results of an April election by GAs have been impounded, pending a decision on the appeal within a few weeks.

At the NLRB hearing, NYU claimed that GAs are primarily students, and therefore not employees. The university said that it runs the graduate teaching program for the benefit of the graduate students’ education, not to facilitate the teaching of undergraduates. “If unionization were likely to lead to excellence in graduate education, universities likely already would have done it,” said university spokesman John Beckman. “Excellence in education is an absolutely critical issue.”

Supporting its contention that the graduate assistant-university relationship is predominantly educational, NYU asserted that GAs are not “compensated” for their services, but receive stipends and tuition remission as part of “an integrated financial system.” The NLRB disagreed, noting that graduate assistants’ stipends are treated “like any other personnel salary,” processed through the payroll department and treated by the IRS as “taxable income.” NYU GAs also disagreed with the administration, complaining that their stipends are insufficient to cover living expenses such as health care and housing, although they do receive full tuition remission.

Although the value of the stipend varied greatly by department—from a low of $6500 in the Metropolitan Center for Education (in the School of Education) to a high of nearly $20,000 in the science departments, GAs receive an average of $12,055, as well as partial medical coverage.

On the final day of the NLRB hearings, NYU submitted a memorandum from Jess Benhabib, interim dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and Catherine Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts Sciences, stating that all doctoral students who enroll in GSAS for the 2000-2001 school year (and thereafter) will be guaranteed a minimum annual stipend of $13,000, and will be required to teach between two and six semesters.

Beyond complaints about the size of stipends, GAs also believe that their workloads are excessive. Kitty Krupat, a TA in the the Expository Writing Program and a union activist, says, “Some professors make every effort to relieve your workload. Others, not through calculated meanness, find themselves exploiting you, indifferent to the number of hours you spend in relation to what you’re paid.”

Robert Berne, vice president for academic development, describes procedures for dealing with the GAs, which include conversations with professors and department heads, as “fair,” and insists that the situations of students who claim to work more than the required 600 hours are “aberrations.”

The NLRB’s ruling on NYU’s appeal is unlikely to provide closure. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, NYU organizers will continue to garner support from the community to pressure the administration into recognizing their right to organize. Jessup is confident that even if the board rules in favor of NYU, “it doesn’t mean we go home; it just means we work a little harder.”

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