Feb. 8, 2006 – As the New York University graduate-student workers' strike enters its second semester, college administrators are making good on their pledge to dock strikers' pay and teaching assignments. In November 2005, NYU grad students started the strike for union recognition, and to preserve the economic and workplace gains from their first contract that covered over 1,000 student workers.
Now, NYU is docking pay for the next two semesters even though the student workers have not declared a strike for the Fall 2006 semester yet. Striking graduate students claim this is akin to "blacklisting" and argue it would not be legal if graduate students were covered by national labor laws.
"We were anticipating having our pay cut," said Amy LeClair, a striking grad-student instructor in the Sociology department. "The problem for me is having it so punitive in terms of being barred from even getting a teaching assignment next semester, so my pay is going to be withheld for a year."
NYU President John Sexton issued threats last November to cut grad-student instructors' teaching assignments and stipends for two semesters if they did not return to work. Their tuition and health benefits, however, would remain intact.
NYU graduate-student teaching and research assistants agitated for better health benefits, pay, workplace fairness and a voice before an administration that refers to the university as "the enterprise." Their first contract increased the base pay for grad-student workers from $15,000 to $18,000 over four years.
Pro-union professors have pulled hundreds of classes off campus in solidarity with the strike.
At the end of January, members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the union that represents NYU graduate students, held a solidarity rally that drew sympathetic professors, leaders from other labor organizations, local elected officials and graduate students from around the Northeast. In addition, NYU undergraduate students formed a solidarity group and staged rallies outside of President Sexton's office at the end of the fall semester to pressure him to recognize the union. GSOC is affiliated with United Auto Workers Local 2110.
"The rally was a great way to kick off the semester and demonstrate to NYU that the labor movement is setting up shop in their front yard and that the spring semester is going to be as chaotic and disruptive as the fall semester," Michael Palm, GSOC chairperson and American Studies graduate student teaching assistant, told The NewStandard.
The strike has national reverberations because, in September 2001, NYU became the first private university to recognize a graduate-student labor union, and both grad students and administrators at other private campuses are monitoring the labor battle. The historic NYU contract won wage increases and better benefits, and reinvigorated union drives at other private institutions like Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.
The movement has been instrumental in gaining better working conditions for some graduate students employed by universities.
"We function as an advocacy group in forcing the administration's hand," said Bill Herman, spokesperson for GET-UP, which organizes for graduate student rights at Penn. Herman said his group has procured better stipends for grad student workers and is agitating around better health benefits.
In the summer of 2005, the NYU administration decided not to sign another contract with GSOC because of a National Labor Relations Board July 2004 decision that ruled graduate-student employees were not workers and not subject to collective bargaining. A Bush-appointed majority on the Labor Board voted three-to-two to reverse a Clinton-era directive that gave private university graduate students the right to form unions.
In rescinding collective-bargaining rights from graduate students, the 2004 NLRB three-member majority wrote, "It is clear to us that graduate-student assistantsâ€¦ are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university." The Board said that the stipends received by graduate students for teaching classes at universities is "financial aid" instead of a wage or salary.
Since then, President Sexton has vigorously fought the union and framed the dispute as a breakdown of trust.
"If we are going to create the university we want, we need an environment of trust," Sexton said. "What we are seeing [unionization] is corrosive of trust."
But proponents of recognizing traditional labor rights for graduate students argue that their work easily fits within the definition of "employees" as defined by the National Labor Relations Act.
The two dissenting NLRB members called their colleagues "woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality" and predicted that as a result of the "harsh" majority ruling, "universities [could] avoid dealing with graduate student unions [and] they are also free to retaliate against graduate students who act together to address their working conditions."
Pro-union professors have pulled hundreds of classes off campus in solidarity with the strike, and GSOC spokespeople claim grading was compromised by professors changing grades to pass/fail and or evaluating on a generous curve. However, many NYU undergraduate students are dismayed by the strike.
"This semester my social psychology class is moved off campus," sophomore Steven Sweitzer said. "It means we have to sit on uncomfortable folding chairs and that I have to walk an extra 15 minutes because I have a class uptown."
Other undergraduate students are supportive of the strike and wonder why a university with a billion-dollar endowment stonewalls its grad students. "I donâ€™t think respect is a lot to ask for," said Graduate Undergraduate Solidarity member Mieke Duffly.
Though the picket lines are thinner than last semester and there is no settlement in sight, striking graduate-student workers maintain a fighting spirit.
"The administration knows where to find us," Palm said. "As soon as they agree to recognize our union and sit down at the bargaining table is when weâ€™ll end the strike."