Graduate-Student Union Organizers Hail NYU Deal as a Breakthrough

March 11, 2015

A new tentative labor agreement between New York University and its graduate employees’ union is being hailed by the organizers of such workers at other private universities as both a landmark victory for their labor movement and, in at least one case, a potential template for their own future demands.

Whether graduate students at other private universities can forge similar agreements will depend, first and foremost, on whether either their universities’ administrations or the National Labor Relations Board will allow them to form collective-bargaining units. The NYU graduate employees’ union might remain the only one of its kind at a private institution unless the NLRB reverses a 2004 decision that has so far limited graduate-student unions to only those private colleges that recognize them voluntarily.

Nonetheless, graduate students attempting to organize unions elsewhere expressed hope on Tuesday that the NYU agreement, announced that morning, would both boost their efforts to recruit members and soften potential resistance from their institutions.

Aaron Greenberg, a doctoral student in political science at Yale University and chairman of its Graduate Employees and Students Organization, said in an email that "it’s really inspiring to see that the union and the administration were able to negotiate a contract that meets everyone’s needs."

Andrew Crook, a spokesman for Cornell Graduate Students United, said the tentative NYU agreement showed that "the roles of graduate students and employees are not mutually exclusive." He predicted it would "serve as a template for future negotiation" at his institution, as graduate-union organizers there and elsewhere use the common labor tactic of looking to other contracts as models.

But Paul R. Katz, a graduate student in history at Columbia University who is a spokesman for Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW Local 2110, was reluctant to say whether the NYU agreement could influence demands there. "I just don’t think we are at that stage yet," he said. "A big part of our organizing is having conversations with people in each department on our campus to get a sense of what graduate workers at Columbia need."

Oliver Picek, a doctoral student in economics at the New School and organizer of Student Employees at the New School-UAW, said that because graduate employees there earn less than those at NYU, "we could potentially have even bigger gains from an agreement."

Poised to Strike

The NYU graduate employees’ union, which represents more than 1,200 teaching, research, and graduate assistants, announced the tentative agreement after a late-night bargaining session. It responded by calling off a planned strike.

"We had a really strong mandate to strike. We had everything in place, and we had tons of support," Lily Defriend, a bargaining-committee member and doctoral student in social anthropology, said in an interview. "We would not have settled for anything that we did not think addressed the needs of employees at NYU."

Another bargaining-committee member, Natasha Raheja, a doctoral student in anthropology, credited the union’s success to a "more agitated and mobilized" membership as a result of changes in the union’s leadership late last year.

A statement issued by the union said the five-year agreement offered "historic gains." They include increases in total compensation through pay and stipends of at least 2.5 percent each year; a doubling of minimum hourly pay, from $10 to $20, for workers at the university’s Polytechnic School of Engineering; the establishment of new family health-care and child-care benefits; guaranteed protections from discrimination; and formalized due-process rights.

The statement quotes Christy Thornton, a doctoral student in history at NYU, as saying: "This contract has incredibly important gains for those workers in our unit who needed them the most: international-student employees, graduate workers with families, and those paying out of pocket for university health care."

The agreement remains subject to ratification by the workers represented by the union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee-United Auto Workers Local 2110. Citing a university policy of not commenting extensively on contracts that have not been formally ratified, John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, said only that the administration was "very pleased to have reached agreement on a tentative contract with the UAW."

Legal Uncertainties

The prospects of other graduate-student organizing efforts remain uncertain. The NYU union came into being after the university voluntarily agreed, in November 2013, to stop opposing its formation, to head off a pending battle before the NLRB over the question of whether graduate students were eligible to unionize as workers.

The NYU student organizers were asking the NLRB to revisit the 2004 decision that limited the ability of graduate students at private universities to organize. That decision, in a case involving Brown University, held that graduate assistants who perform services in connection with their studies are not employees because their relationship with the university is primarily educational. (Graduate-student unions at public colleges are governed by state labor laws.)

Although NYU’s decision cleared the way for graduate employees there to unionize without the NLRB’s blessing, it also removed the need for the NLRB to revisit is 2004 Brown decision, which had hamstrung subsequent efforts to unionize graduate employees at private universities.

A regional NLRB official cited the 2004 ruling last month in denying a petition for union elections filed by graduate students at Columbia University. The Columbia organizers have appealed the regional official’s decision to the national board, providing a new opportunity for the board to revisit its Brown decision. As long as that decision remains in effect, the only avenue open to the organizers of such unions is seeking their universities’ voluntary recognition.

Mr. Picek of the New School said he hoped administrators there would see developments at NYU as reason to conclude it "really isn’t worth the hassle and reputation damage" to deny recognition to his union and end up involved in a fight before the NLRB. "We are still hopeful," he said, "because they have not said no."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.