Mere hours before a vote that could have authorized a teaching assistant strike at New York University began, NYU announced yesterday it will become the first private university in the country to bargain with a teaching assistant union.
The move ends the long and often-acrimonious battle over graduate student teacher union recognition at NYU, averts the threat of a TA strike at NYU this semester and sets a precedent for other private schools like Yale where groups of graduate students are organizing.
A date has not yet been set for the United Auto Workers-sponsored Graduate Student Organizing Committee to begin negotiating with NYU.
“The UAW provided the university with a letter that recognized a need to protect a range of academic matters that were crucial to us and as a consequence we were able to go to the bargaining table,” NYU spokesman John Beckman said.
Leaders of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization said the agreement provides a model for how to establish a TA union.
“It’s a major victory. I am so proud of GSOC,” Yale’s GESO chair J. T. Way GRD ’05 said. “The whole point here is that NYU sat down and came to a mutually acceptable agreement with the administration.”
But the ultimate effects for Yale of the precedent set at NYU are still uncertain.
“I think each campus has its own idiosyncrasies,” said Robert Berne, NYU’s vice-president for academic and health affairs. “Obviously we’re the first, so everything we do is testing the water.”
The NYU administration announced its intention to bargain after the UAW agreed to a variety of rules for a bargaining relationship and also agreed to drop National Labor Relations Board unfair labor practice charges against NYU.
The UAW agreed to put certain academic issues, including academic policy, faculty hiring and curriculum structure, off limits for negotiating. The UAW also agreed to exclude teaching assistants who are students at NYU’s Stern Business School from the bargaining group and reexamine whether certain science students should remain as part of the union.
Finally, the union agreed to negotiate only about conditions for students serving as graduate assistants in a given term and not those students solely focusing on their studies.
“The law is very clear about this, that these kind of [academic] issues are non-negotiable,” said Shannan Clark, an organizer with the UAW-affiliated group working to unionize graduate students at Columbia University.
He added that the terms of the agreement dictating which employees bargain are not a surprise, since the precedent-setting NLRB rulings last fall and last spring said only graduate assistants at NYU are employees.
“Both of these rulings are very clear about which graduate students have statutory bargaining and organizing rights,” Clark said.
Yale President Richard Levin said having a framework for negotiating is a positive aspect of the NYU situation.
“It’s certainly preferable to have an agreement such as this as opposed to leaving everything wide open,” Levin said. “[But] I still believe that most students at Yale, after a full and reasoned debate, will decide that unionization is not in their best interest.”
The looming threat of a strike at NYU this semester ended with yesterday’s agreement, which just beat the clock. The GSOC strike vote was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m..
The NYU administration said it had still had not reached a decision as of a meeting yesterday that ended a little before 4 p.m., said Leonard Zeiger, chair of NYU’s Student Senators Council, a student government group that encompasses many of the schools at NYU. He also said he is glad that the controversy over whether NYU would bargain now is finished.
“It was getting to the point where a lot of people who weren’t directly involved just wanted it to be over already,” Zeiger said.
But not every student at NYU rejoiced at the news.
Aqib Sakia, a business school student who was the lone dissenting voice at a Feb. 22 meeting in which the Student Senators Council passed a near-unanimous resolution encouraging the NYU administration to bargain with GSOC, said he believes the beginning of a bargaining relationship with the union will be detrimental to NYU.
“I don’t really see how the event can be good for the university,” Sakia said. “Inevitably, the unionization is going to raise the cost of doing business at the university.”
While a union now is established at NYU, at Yale the controversial issue of graduate student unionization continues to unfold slowly.
But as the debate at Yale continues and GESO’s membership drive also continues, GESO spokesman Carlos Aramayo GRD ’03 said he is happy for the union at NYU.
“My initial reaction is it’s great news,” Aramayo said. “I hope that they get a great contract.”