Members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization joined picket lines Wednesday at New York University, where graduate students are on strike for a new contract with the administration.
Wednesday marked the first day of a strike organized by the Graduate Students Organizing Committee, a branch of the United Auto Workers, whose contract with NYU expired in August. NYU’s decision not to recognize a union for graduate students this year follows a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that private universities do not have to negotiate with graduate-student unions. While Yale President Richard Levin said he understands NYU’s decision, GESO representatives said student unionization is important for teaching assistants at both schools.
GSOC spokeswoman Susan Valentine said about 1,000 people, including students from other universities and representatives of other NYU unions, walked picket lines at the height Wednesday’s demonstrations. Graduate students from Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Yale arrived on the NYU campus to protest today, Valentine said.
“Obviously, the best outcome would be that we’d be sitting in negotiations with the university tonight,” Valentine said. “But it really showed how much support we have from the NYU community — undergraduates, faculty, other campus unions and unions at other campuses.”
About 50 GESO organizers and members of Locals 34 and 35, carrying drums and bright red placards, boarded a bus in New Haven Wednesday morning for NYU. GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said the organization’s support for strikers at other universities is part of an effort to build a national movement for graduate-student unionization.
“I anticipate that when NYU actually wins, there will be another wave of organizing,” she said.
In a letter sent last week to NYU undergraduates, NYU Provost David McLaughlin said the university chose not to negotiate a second contract with the union because of disputes over academic affairs. The union rejected an offer in August to act as a collective-bargaining agent on certain issues, such as stipends and health care, McLaughlin said.
“As you know, the University entered into a contract with the UAW in 2001, the first and only private university to do so,” McLaughlin said. “We had choices, but we decided to enter into a contract because the union committed — in writing — not to interfere with NYU’s academic decision-making. Regrettably, they broke that promise.”
The university does not expect the strike to disrupt undergraduate classes, NYU spokesman John Beckman said in a statement released Wednesday.
NYU administrators refused to sit down with union representatives to negotiate a second contract, Valentine said, and the union rejected the August proposal because it lacked an enforcement mechanism. She said GSOC members plan to strike until the administration agrees to meet with them to negotiate a new contract.
The NLRB, which mediates disputes between workers and employers, ruled in 2000 that graduate students at private universities are employees and are eligible to form unions. But in 2004, the board, which had come to include new members appointed by the Bush administration, reversed itself and declared that graduate students are primarily students, not employees, and private universities are no longer obligated to recognize their unions.
Levin said the NLRB ruling did not affect Yale’s stance against unionization, which has remained constant throughout GESO’s years of organizing.
“We think that graduate students are primarily students and not employees and we think that the existing channels of communication to voice their views work very effectively in resolving the issues that they’ve had over the years,” Levin said.
University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, who helped organize the 1995 GESO strike in which teaching assistants withheld students’ grades, said if the current strike successfully forces NYU to recognize a union, it will demonstrate students’ ability to unionize regardless of NLRB rulings. While private universities are not required to recognize graduate student unions under current law, they can do so voluntarily.
“If the NYU grad students can succeed, it will trigger significant national events,” Nelson said. “If it fails, it just makes the mountain that much more difficult to climb.”
Cornell professor Ronald Ehrenberg, who studies academic labor markets, said he cannot predict how NYU will respond to the strike, but they would be most likely to negotiate if they think the strike could adversely affect their image with potential future students.