Zoe Carey, a 32-year-old sociology Ph.D. candidate at the New School, spends every week trying to cram what she estimates is 25 hours worth of work into ten hours of paid time as a school teaching fellow. Carey teaches her own undergraduate course, “Sociological Imagination” — the fourteenth class she’s taught in her six years at the university. She is also currently a research assistant for a professor, admissions liaison for the Sociology Department, and the associate editor at the Vera List Center on campus. She can’t remember the last time she slept.
And yet New School administrators do not consider Carey, or anyone else in her position, a full-time school employee worthy of receiving benefits or a livable wage.
That’s why at 10 a.m. this morning, Carey and the other 850 members of the New School’s graduate and undergraduate student academic workers union, SENS-UAW, went on strike to protest what they say is the university’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract.
With the support of more than 300 faculty members, the students hope to shut down the New School: no classes, no research, no teaching, no responding to e-mails, no grading assignments, and no crossing of the picket line by faculty, other union worker members, or students. Classes taught by other faculty will either be canceled or moved off campus.
SENS-UAW organizers say the strike will continue for however long it takes for them to get a fair contract. Despite the New School’s reputation for supporting social justice, the university has long resisted recognizing its graduate students as workers, even after court rulings have ordered them to do so.
When reached for a comment, Amy Malsin, the senior director of communications and public affairs responded: “The New School has a long tradition of student activism, and we support the right of our student workers to engage in peaceful strikes and job actions. Over the course of numerous meetings since September, we have continued to work collaboratively and diligently towards an agreement that recognizes the vital role student workers play at the New School, and we remain committed to reaching a timely contract that reflects the best interests of all students, faculty and staff.”
SENS-UAW, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers (disclosure: the UAW also represents Village Voice employees), first petitioned to be recognized by the National Labor Relations Board in December 2014, the same time as Columbia University’s student worker union delivered a similar petition. At that time, schools followed a 2004 NLRB ruling involving Brown University that allowed private universities to refuse to recognize student workers’ right to unionize. In 2016, the NLRB reversed that ruling for Columbia, but New School administrators still refused to recognize their student union, and in April 2017 asked the NLRB to review its decision.
In May 2017, the NLRB ruled that the New School students could vote to unionize. But school administrators further delayed a unionization vote by filing another legal challenge questioning whether the participants of the vote were actual union members. Finally, in July 2017 the students, by a 502–2 margin, voted to unionize.
Since then, they say, it’s become an even more convoluted battle for negotiating and bargaining a contract.
Louisa Strothman, 21, a sociology major graduating this month who has held two different research assistant positions and is a member of the bargaining committee, says school administrators never personally come to the table to negotiate. Instead, she says, administrators send the school’s vice president of labor relations to act as a liaison.
According to Strothman, bargaining began last September, when New School officials preemptively declared that they would only first negotiate on non-economic issues (job description, hiring procedure, harassment protection) before considering economic ones (healthcare, wages, tuition, and childcare). When the union did present an economic proposal in December, she says, administration negotiators took four and a half months to issue a response — and then only after SENS-UAW staged a sit-in at the HR and Labor Relations office.
“It became clear they were delaying economic in a way that would delay bargaining,” says Strothman.
A typical first contract after unionizing usually entails a substantial bump in wages; NYU gave its student workers a 38 percent pay hike in 2002. The New School, it seemed to SENS-UAW members, was still not taking them seriously.
Michael Dobson, 32, a Ph.D. candidate in global politics from New Zealand who works as a teaching fellow and research assistant, claims that the New School pulls in roughly $100,000 from tuition for each course, yet teaching fellows receive a stipend of only $5,000 to $6,000 dollars per semester.
At the same time, New School president David Van Zandt is among the top ten highest-earning presidents of private universities in the U.S. “The admin is adept at marketing and very good at trying to cover up their hypocrisy,” says Dobson. “But the status quo is not OK and needs to change.”
Strothman says she’s had to work 50 to 70 hours per week while being paid for only 20 hours a week because that’s all state law allows for full-time students. And yet, the expectations were always that the work had to be done.
Union members also complain that there is a dearth of on-campus jobs for international students, who because of visa restrictions are not allowed to work off campus. Carey says that many international students don’t receive final word about job offers until it’s too late to make other plans or after airline tickets have gone up in price.
And yet, Carey, Dobson, and Strothman all reiterate that they view a strike as a last resort.
“We love the work we do and have no intention of removing that from the university. We wanted to avoid going on strike,” says Strothman. “Student workers love and value their work and contribute massively to the university, but we can’t keep doing it when it’s costing us health [and] safety, and putting us in precarious situations.”