NYU grad students move toward unionization

Last week, about 1,200 graduate teaching assistants at New York University took a significant step toward securing the ability to collectively bargain — a development that may have implications for private universities across the country.

In a joint announcement last Tuesday, NYU and a graduate student union known as the Graduate Student Organizing Committee said NYU will recognize and collectively bargain with the union, provided that the union wins graduate students’ support in a Dec. 10–11 election. The union, which is under the umbrella of the United Automobile Workers, is widely expected to earn the vote. While teaching graduate students are unionized at many public universities, neither Yale nor any other private universities have recognized a graduate student union since 2005, when NYU President John Sexton stopped recognizing the union. Still, graduate student leaders interviewed said Yale is unlikely to recognize its graduate student union in the near future.

Over the past several decades, Yale has maintained an often-acrimonious relationship with its own graduate student union, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. Part of the Unite Here umbrella of unions — which includes Yale’s Local 34 and Local 35 unions — GESO is not recognized by the University, though it has long sought the collective bargaining ability that NYU’s graduate student unions may soon enjoy.

“We are really, really excited that the [NYU] administration and GSOC have reached this agreement in a collaborative way,” said Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, the current president of Yale’s GESO. “It bodes really well for graduate student teachers seeking the right to bargain collectively about their work.”

Graduate students involved with the push for unionization at NYU said they expect their university’s decisions to create waves at private universities across the country.

Matt Canfield, a fifth-year doctoral student and union organizer at NYU, said last week’s announcement, as well as GSOC’s hopes of signing a contract by the end of the 2013–’14 academic year, will set a precedent for other higher education institutions.

“We absolutely anticipate that this will energize graduate workers at other private universities to organize nationwide,” Canfield said.

Canfield said he has been in touch with graduate employees at several other universities, all of whom have asked about seeking union recognition. Julie Kushner, the Director of UAW Region 9A, which includes NYU, said the union activists at NYU and in the UAW have communicated with other graduate students through the Coalition of Graduate Employees Unions. The group includes graduate employee unions across the United States and Canada.

Changes at Yale, however, appear unlikely in the immediate future. When asked if the NYU administration’s decision to move forward with the election sets a precedent for Yale, Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard responded with a simple, “No.”

The development in New York has not translated into any new efforts on the part of Yale’s GESO. Though Greenberg said GESO hopes to gain recognition from the University, he did not elaborate on whether the group plans to intensify its efforts in the coming months.

GESO has not sought a meeting with Pollard this academic year, Greenberg said.

Graduate student leaders interviewed said the deal struck at NYU would not work at Yale because of both the structure of the University and the climate of student-administration relations.

The union at NYU will exclude non-teaching research assistants in the natural and physical sciences. Since these assistants comprise a higher proportion of graduate students at Yale than they do at NYU, Steven Reilly GRD ’15, Graduate and Professional Student Senate President said a similar deal would be unlikely at Yale.

NYU has argued that research assistants, of which the university has approximately 275, should not be included in the deal because their research is part of their academic training. Kushner, the UAW director, said she hopes a future agreement will include the graduate researchers.

Yale Graduate Student Assembly Chair Brian Dunican GRD ’15 said graduate students and the University maintain a productive relationship with the administration, which he said does not appear to be the case at NYU. Unlike their counterparts in New York, graduate students at Yale also have the GSA and GPSS at their disposal as vehicles for organizing, he added.

Canfield echoed Dunican’s sentiment, listing a series of possible reasons for the NYU administration’s decision that would not be applicable to Yale: NYU faces pressure from multiple fronts — including frequent calls for the resignation of President John Sexton and questions from federal lawmakers about the university’s tax-exempt status, a petition signed by 1,000 graduate students decrying a 33 percent increase in health care costs and calls by New York City mayoral candidates to recognize the union provided impetus to the decision, he said.

“I think that for the [NYU] administration, this was something that has long been an issue that they knew they could settle,” Canfield said.

The election at NYU will be run by the American Arbitration Association. According to AAA Vice President Jeffrey Zaino, the election will use paper ballots and will observed to prevent any interference by either side.

The AAA conducts approximately 400 elections each year, most of which are held for unions.

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