In a precedent-setting agreement that could resonate at universities nationwide, teaching assistants at New York University have reached an agreement on the first union contract ever for graduate students on a private campus in the country.
The contract marks a major advance in a growing effort to form TA unions at private universities — including Yale.
The 1,300 NYU TAs represented by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee were expected to ratify the contract in a vote Wednesday afternoon, said United Auto Workers organizer Lisa Jessup. Jessup said the results of the election likely will be made public on Thursday.
GSOC is affiliated with the UAW.
If graduate students approve the contract, it will end 11 months of tense negotiations that were followed closely by graduate students, labor leaders and university administrators across the country.
The NYU contract is the first reached since a landmark 2000 National Labor Relations Board ruling that reversed a long-standing precedent and declared NYU TAs employees eligible to form a union. Since the NYU decision, TAs at Brown, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania have also filed for union elections.
Anita Seth GRD ’05, chairwoman of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization, said the agreement proves that a contract at a private university like Yale is possible.
“I think it really provides a good road map for seeing what can be done when the administration is willing to develop a working relationship with unions,” Seth said.
Yale Provost Alison Richard, the University’s chief academic and financial officer, said it is unclear how the settlement at NYU might affect Yale.
In New York, NYU and GSOC leaders said they believed the contract represented an acceptable solution for two groups with very different aims.
“The University has had all along concerns about intrusions on academic decision making, and the union has had concerns about issues about compensation and health care,” said Robert Berne, a member of NYU’s negotiating team and vice president of academic and health affairs. “What I think we’re about to do is craft an agreement that respects the union concerns and the University’s concerns.”
Under the proposed four-year contract, TAs would receive a minimum stipend of $15,000, with the minimum stipend increasing by $1,000 each year. TAs would also receive full health coverage starting next academic year. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the average TA stipend currently is $12,500, and not all students receive health coverage.
The contract also includes a no strike, no lockout clause, one of the major stumbling blocks to a settlement. The no strike clause became a source of contention during negotiations, and was one of the reasons cited for delays in negotiations that led GSOC to hold a strike authorization vote in November. Jessup said GSOC was happy with the current clause, which prohibits striking but would allow TAs to picket and boycott.
“It’s been a long struggle with NYU, yet having something concrete and specific like a contract with real benefits is a real improvement,” Jessup said.
The settlement represents a major step in higher education nationwide, with university administrators almost uniformly opposed to graduate student unionization. Jessup said she was impressed by what she called a change in tone from Berne’s statements. But while Berne said he was happy with the contract, he noted he and other administrators still had reservations about the concept of graduate student unionization.
“I went into this believing that the union approach was not the right approach to affect changes in this area of higher education,” Berne said. “There were moments in contract negotiations when I felt my concerns were justified, and times when I felt they were not. The proof is going to have to play out in the implementation of the contract.”
While the NYU TAs achieved recognition through an election, GESO has continued to request recognition through neutrality.
Under a neutrality agreement, University officials including faculty would not express opinions on unionization. GESO would be allowed to collect union cards from TAs, and the administration would recognize the union if a majority of TAs signed cards in support of the union.
Administrators have repeatedly said they oppose neutrality, as well as TA unionization.
Doctoral students at Yale already receive full health coverage and this fall the University increased next year’s graduate student stipends to $15,000.