The union that represents New York University’s nearly 1,000 teaching and research assistants is threatening to strike on March 10 after months of fruitless bargaining negotiations with university officials.
The two sides are scheduled to meet tonight in a last-ditch effort to prevent the so-called “limited strike,” which union members say would begin on March 10 and end on March 13. The Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) is asking for 100 percent healthcare coverage for its members, including family benefits; annual wage increases of 3.5 percent, in keeping with the rate of inflation; and tuition remission for Ph.D. candidates.
GSOC members are hoping the threat of a strike will push NYU to accept its conditions. On December 12, 2014, members voted almost unanimously in favor of a strike, to which the university responded with a few concessions, though it has not yet come close to meeting the union’s demands. “Our successful strike vote and setting of the strike deadline has put more pressure on NYU,” said Natasha Raheja, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology and a member of GSOC’s bargaining committee. “It pushed them to offer us some greater material gains,” such as increasing healthcare coverage from 50 to 70 percent.
While graduate workers say the university has not done enough to acknowledge its student workforce, there has long been ambiguity about the role of graduate workers in relation to the university. Are graduate workers students, or employees?
In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board approved a union for all of the university’s graduate workers, the first of its kind at a private university. In 2004, however, the NLRB — which under George W. Bush had a Republican majority — ruled that graduate students at Brown University could not unionize because their relationship to the university was primarily academic, not economic. As a result, NYU won the right to refuse to renew GSOC’s contract when it expired in 2005. The union has been without a contract ever since.
In November 2013, NYU decided to bypass the NLRB and allow graduate students to vote on whether to unionize, which they did in a nearly unanimous decision. Since then, the administration has met regularly with the union’s bargaining committee to work out a contract for graduate workers.
In an email to the Village Voice, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, John Beckman, wrote: “We had hoped that the cooperative spirit that prevailed at the time we agreed to recognize the union would be sustained at the bargaining table. That has, regrettably, not proved to be the case.” The university has maintained that the union refuses to identify its priorities. “The simple reality is that neither side gets everything it wants in a contract negotiation, and for the negotiation to move forward, it requires each side to identify priorities so that progress can be made by focusing on those priorities,” Beckman wrote.
Daniel Cohen, a volunteer organizer and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, says Beckman’s claim that the union hasn’t articulated its priorities is “transparently ridiculous.”
“We have emailed our members, and posted on our website a side-by-side comparison of our position and the university’s position,” he said.
On Friday, NYU provost David McLaughlin sent an email to students and staff summarizing the university’s position — and emphasizing GSOC’s responsibility if studies are disrupted on March 10. “We will go into next Monday’s bargaining session — the last before the strike deadline the union has artificially set for next Tuesday — retaining the hope that good-faith bargaining will produce a contract that is good for all; however, we will also be prepared should the union make the unfortunate decision to strike,” McLaughlin wrote.
The union says it takes undergraduate education and its potential disruption seriously, but that it is prepared to strike again in the future if the university does not agree to its conditions. “We have planned for a short strike with the threat of full preparation of repeated strikes — possibly for longer — if NYU doesn’t meet our demands,” Raheja said. “So the onus is really on the administration.”