Union Drive for Graduate Students at NYU Gets Go-Ahead

November 27, 2013

New York University has agreed to let most of its graduate-student employees vote on forming a union, ending a dispute over the students' unionization rights that had been pending before the National Labor Relations Board.

Under the terms of an agreement between NYU and the United Auto Workers reached on Tuesday, more than 1,200 graduate employees of NYU and its affiliated Polytechnic Institute will be allowed to vote on forming a UAW-affiliated collective-bargaining unit. Graduate assistants, teaching assistants, and many, but not all, research assistants will be eligible to vote, and the university's administration will make no attempt to influence the election's outcome.

The two sides removed a key sticking point in their talks—the university's refusal of the UAW's demand that the new union include research assistants—with a compromise excluding some research assistants from union representation. The list of those who remain ineligible to vote in the union election or to engage in collective bargaining includes all research assistants at NYU-Poly and those at NYU in psychology, mathematics, and the hard sciences. Also excluded are graders, tutors, graduate assistants in the medical school, and M.B.A. students at NYU's business school.

A statement issued by UAW officials said "the question of bargaining rights for RA's in the hard sciences and engineering remains unresolved," suggesting that the union had not abandoned its efforts to organize those populations of graduate workers.

Previous Union's Demise

With its inclusion of other NYU-Poly employees and NYU graduate employees in their sixth or seventh year of doctoral studies, the proposed new union's composition is somewhat broader than that of a graduate union that was in place at New York University from 2001 until 2005.

The university had refused to renew the previous union's contract in response to a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. In a case involving Brown University, the board held that graduate assistants who perform services in connection with their studies are not employees because their relationship with the university is primarily educational.

The group attempting to establish a new NYU union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the United Auto Workers, had been asking the NLRB to reverse its 2004 decision in a case that pitted labor unions against private colleges and several higher-education associations.

Tuesday's agreement calls for both the UAW committee and NYU to withdraw their filings in their dispute over graduate-union recognition. It also calls for the American Arbitration Association to oversee the union elections, expected to be held on December 10 and 11.

Robert Berne, who played a central role in the negotiations as NYU's executive vice president for health, on Tuesday praised the agreement as setting "the foundation for a good working relationship."

A separate statement jointly issued by both NYU and the UAW's union organizers there expressed confidence that the new agreement would "improve the graduate-student experience." It said "both the university and the UAW see this agreement as an opportunity to prove again that bargaining for graduate employees can be effective in a private university."