The contract reached between New York University and a teaching assistant union last week — the first ever at a private university –has been hailed as a victory by TA union activists at NYU, Yale and across the nation.
But administrators at NYU and Yale said they are reserving judgment about how universities and the graduate student union movement will be affected.
Under the four-year contract, NYU TAs will receive a minimum stipend of $15,000, which will increase by $1,000 each year. TAs will also receive full tuition payment and full health coverage starting next academic year.
At Yale, TAs receive a standard stipend of $13,700, which will increase to $15,000 next year for new and current students. The Graduate School also covers the cost of tuition and health care for doctoral students.
Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield said Yale TAs received comparable compensation and benefits even without a contract.
“It certainly seems like an improvement for students at NYU,” Hockfield said. “But it doesn’t match the financial aid package at Yale, especially if you consider the living standards in New York, as opposed to New Haven.”
Anita Seth GRD ’05, chairwoman of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which is attempting to organize TAs at Yale, said she was excited about the NYU contract and hoped it could serve as a “road map” for contracts at other schools.
But Yale President Richard Levin said the NYU contract did not address his concern that recognizing graduate students as employees would subject universities to laws designed for employers, not academic institutions.
“Regardless of what’s in this contract, I would still have concerns about the broad potential scope of coverage under the National Labor Relations Act,” Levin said. “Even if this contract avoided conflation of academic- and employment-related issues, that possibility I believe still exists under the law.”
NYU Vice President of Academic and Health Affairs Robert Berne, who served on the university’s negotiating team, said he still had reservations about graduate student unionization, but was satisfied with the contract. Berne added that how it would affect university life or the movement nationwide was “the $64,000 question,” and said it was too early to know the contract’s effect.
“The proof is going to have to play out in the implementation of the contract,” Berne said. “If in effect what this does is improve the way in which graduate assistants use their time and relate to the university, then I think it can be a net gain for both the students and university. But if some of the standardization and homogeneity that comes with any union contract eliminates our need to do what’s right educationally, then I think it will be bad for graduate assistants in the long run, even if they get certain monetary gains … the jury is still out.”
Lisa Jessup, an organizer for the United Auto Workers who helped organize the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at NYU, said she hoped the contract would serve as a model for graduate students nationwide.
“We think it’s going to be great for the movement,” Jessup said. “I think it makes it real for people and I think it will inspire people to try to achieve those things on other campuses.”
Levin has said he believes the landmark 2000 National Labor Relations Board ruling that permitted NYU TAs to unionize will be overturned. Last month, the NLRB gained a Republican majority when two new members appointed by President George W. Bush joined it. The NYU precedent will be tested in an appeal filed by administrators at Brown University, who challenged a ruling allowing Brown TAs to unionize.