Education

While Demanding Better Wages and Benefits, NYU Graduate Assistants Are Mulling a Strike

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Graduate students at New York University are weighing whether to step out of the library and onto the picket line.

The Graduate School Organizing Committee — the union that represents NYU’s teaching and research assistants — is trying to negotiate a contract with school officials, and says the university isn’t playing fair.

See More: Graduate Students at NYU Become the First Graduate-Student Union at a Private School (Again)

The GSOC is demanding a bigger child care benefit, free health insurance for students and their dependents, a tuition fee waiver for all Ph.D. and master’s employees, and higher wages. The union also wants the school, which currently gives student workers different benefits depending on which of the university’s 11 colleges they attend, to implement a package that’s more standardized.

Ella Wind, who is in her second year of a master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies, says the school had been negotiating with the union in good faith until about September, when the union submitted its most recent counteroffer.

Since then, “They haven’t offered us a counterproposal,” says Wind, who also sits on the union’s bargaining committee. Instead, at a bargaining meeting with the union in October, “They said they wanted us to ‘specify our priorities.’ “

Wind says she shouldn’t be asked to tip her hand like that: “That’s bargaining against ourselves, in a way.”

NYU did not respond to a list of questions asked on Friday by the Voice, but Vice President for Public Affairs John Beckman issued a statement saying the two sides are still bargaining in good faith.

Earlier this month the union agreed to meet with NYU officials and a mediator in hopes of reaching a compromise. Those meetings are expected to begin in December.

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“We remain focused on achieving a good contract that honors the contributions of our graduate students,” Beckman said in the statement. “We believe the mediator will be very helpful in narrowing the gap between our positions.”

But that’s not stopping the union from putting the heat on administrators. On November 21, two ballot boxes were set up outside NYU’s Bobst Library to mark the beginning of a strike vote.

The ballot boxes will be taken to each of the school’s 11 New York City colleges so as many grad students as possible have a chance to vote. Voting will continue until at least December 3. A strike vote will not necessarily result in a strike, but will give the union the power to call a strike if a deal can’t be reached.

The boxes were set up during a rally attended by about 80 students, many of whom held bright red balloons and signs that said, “Our working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Gabriel Rocha, a Ph.D. student with a one-year-old daughter, says he currently receives a $200 child care benefit each semester. “That’s enough money to pay for two days of child care,” the 28-year-old Rocha says. “Frankly, it’s insulting, but we take it. We need all the help we can get.”

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The GSOC has had a short but rocky history since its inception in 1998. In 2000, the university was forced to recognize its existence after a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, and the following year the school and the union signed its first contract.

But in 2004, the board effectively overturned its decision when it ruled that graduate student workers at Brown University in Rhode Island were not employees. Once NYU’s contract with grad students expired in 2005, it stopped recognizing the union and refused to negotiate a new contract. The students responded with a strike that lasted for more than an entire semester, before quietly going back to work the following September.

They remained without a contract for eight years, until 2013, when the school once again chose to recognize the GSOC — garnering praise from the union for keeping things classy. Negotiations began this February.

By June, though, some students were tussling with United Auto Workers staff who, they said, weren’t fighting for a strong enough contract and were meeting university administrators in closed, off-the-record meetings instead of reaching out to students for input. The GSOC is a UAW affiliate. The Village Voice‘s employee union is also represented by the UAW.

Those allegations led to a shakeup during autumn union elections when four members of that student group were voted onto the GSOC’s bargaining committee. The union has since taken on a new direction, which sometimes involves outreach actions like this one:

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