NYU grad students may strike

Frustrated by delays as they negotiate the first ever graduate teaching assistant contract at a private university in this country, teaching assistants at New York University plan to hold a strike authorization vote next week, organizers said.

The vote comes as other universities with prospective TA unions watch the process closely.

If the Nov. 13 strike authorization vote is successful, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee’s bargaining team would be able to set a deadline for reaching a satisfactory contract with the university, and teaching assistants could go on strike if the deadline is not met.

The plan comes nine months after the NYU union became the first graduate student union recognized by a private university and a year and a half after a landmark National Labor Relations Board ruling declared that TAs at NYU were employees and able to form unions.

Graduate students at some public universities have long been able to form unions because they are considered state employees and are subject to state and not federal labor law.

But after the 2000 NLRB ruling, groups on several private university campuses, including Brown, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, are watching the NYU process for indications of what the future might bring as they attempt to gain recognition as unions.

“Obviously this contract is nouveau, not merely for us but for all of private higher education, so we are crossing a lot of uncharted terrain,” NYU spokesman John Beckman said. “It is new territory, and there’s a consequence. It may have some precedential implications, but in the end it is a negotiation between NYU and the bargaining unit representing its graduate assistants.”

Beckman declined to comment on the strike authorization vote but said he thought the two sides had made substantial progress on negotiations, particularly in the last two months.

But Lisa Jessup, an organizer for the United Auto Workers, which is the parent union for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, said the decision to consider a strike reflected frustrations with what they saw as a lack of progress on wages and health care issues.

“We feel we need to do this because we have not seen enough movement from the university,” Jessup said.

Jessup said as the union negotiates its own contract, they are aware of the contract’s potential legacy.

“We’re hopeful that there will be a set of new standards at universities everywhere, but our priority right now is making sure assistants at NYU fare better than they have in the past,” Jessup said.

But on campuses including Columbia, Brown and Penn, groups are looking to follow in the NYU union’s footsteps.

The Graduate Student Employees United, the UAW-affiliated group that hopes to represent Columbia TAs, recently filed for an NLRB election, which could allow them to be recognized as a union. University officials filed an objection, and the two sides are awaiting a ruling from the NLRB after hearings on the matter.

Brown University officials and members of the UAW-affiliated Brown Graduate Employee Organization are awaiting the results of a similar NLRB hearing.

An NLRB election and a card count neutrality agreement are two processes through which a union can form.

To hold an NLRB election, a group must collect the signatures of 30 percent of potential members and submit them to the NLRB. The group can then request an NLRB election, and a union would gain recognition if a majority of potential members voted in favor of unionization.

At Yale, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization is trying to achieve recognition through card count neutrality.

Under a card count neutrality agreement, Yale officials would agree to prohibit any University officials or employees from commenting on unionization. The union would gain recognition if a majority of the potential bargaining unit signed membership cards.

At Penn, a group called Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania has been collecting membership cards to submit to the NLRB, said Emily West, a graduate student and labor group spokeswoman.

West said the group formed last year after the NLRB ruling that allowed graduate students to unionize.

Last month, Penn Deputy Provost Peter Conn sent an e-mail to graduate and professional students warning of complications unionization would bring.

But West said the administration had taken a de facto policy of neutrality otherwise and had not expressed any comments on GET-UP’s efforts.

Officials at Penn could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Also inspired by the TA unionization efforts at NYU, a group of adjunct professors at NYU is seeking to become one of the first unions for adjunct professors at a private university, said Hyacinth Blanchard, an organizer for the UAW. Blanchard said the UAW had collected over 1,000 signatures of the approximately 4,000 adjunct professors at the university.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents adjunct professors in the City University of New York system, has also been collecting signed cards, Blanchard said.

Comments