Getting the union moving at NYU

September 30, 2014

James Daugherty reports on an election victory for a reform slate in the graduate students' union at New York University--and what it means for their fight for a contract.

BY A margin of roughly two-to-one, members of the newly formed NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union slate were elected onto the bargaining team for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) at New York University (NYU) on September 17.

Because GSOC was only certified last December and has yet to win a first contract and hold subsequent elections for officers, seats on the bargaining team are the only elected positions for the union. Running on a platform of union democracy, social justice and winning a strong first contract, the results are a demonstration of the willingness of graduate student employees at the first and currently only private university to have union representation to fight back against the tide of neoliberalism in higher education.

GSOC HAS a long history at NYU. It was first certified in 2000, after a historic decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to finally consider graduate students as workers at private universities, and thus extend to them legally recognized union and bargaining rights. GSOC won a first contract in 2001.

Supporters of the AWDU slate gathered at a voting station
Supporters of the AWDU slate gathered at a voting station (NYU AWDU)

By 2005, however, the NLRB under the Bush administration reversed its previous decision, and an unsuccessful strike was broken by NYU President John Sexton. (Sexton still holds his position, despite numerous "no confidence" votes by the faculty and ongoing graduate organizing.) The union was decertified and fell into disarray.

In the fall of 2013, however, the Sexton administration suddenly announced it had agreed to a neutrality agreement with the United Auto Workers (UAW, the parent union of GSOC) and would not oppose a vote by graduate student employees to certify a union. Still smarting from a series of very public scandals and with a pending decision by the Obama NLRB that was expected to reverse the decision of the Bush NLRB, the administration at NYU offered the neutrality agreement in exchange for the UAW withdrawing its longstanding appeal to the NLRB.

If it had been ruled on, the appeal potentially would have changed national laws regarding graduate student employees. Under Bush, the NLRB ruled that the relationship of graduate student employees to their professors is akin to that of "mentors" and "mentees"--because graduate employees are also students and receive credit for their research, and so couldn't be considered workers.

Following the neutrality agreement, GSOC quickly mobilized supporters for the election, and was certified with a "yes" vote of 98.6 percent of the bargaining unit.

Although an initial bargaining committee was then elected, at that point, momentum seemed to slow. Efforts to mobilize the membership were minimal, and even initiatives by interested members were discouraged. No major actions were organized to put pressure on the administration, and open, public bargaining was ruled off the table immediately, with closed-door negotiations instead held between representatives of the UAW and the NYU administration. No gains had been made by the summertime and a first contract was not within sight.

In a Labor Notes article detailing the experience of that semester, bargaining team member Natasha Raheja wrote,

Our UAW staff and representatives did not support members wanting to plan creative actions such as library work-ins and health center sick-ins to demonstrate our power and expand the visibility of our contract campaign, citing that collective actions might send management the wrong message and expose weakness.

When rank and filers tried organizing members who were parents, or international students, into special interest groups, these efforts were labeled as unofficial and agenda-ridden. When members proposed strategically using the contract campaign to foreground issues of class size--arguing that it is a workload and quality of undergraduate education issue--they were dismissed as derailing the process of winning basic material needs.

THIS LED to a public rupture on the bargaining team over this past summer. Raheja and several others circulated a public letter breaking with the strategy being pursued by the International and the union staff, and calling for transparency and internal democracy in the union, as well as a mobilization of the membership in the contract fight and a social justice orientation. Another letter followed, signed by over 100 rank and filers supporting these demands.

These core activists then reconstituted themselves as "NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union," (AWDU) a reform group within GSOC. Inspired by the recent contract victory of a caucus by the same name within the statewide UAW local representing graduate student employees in the University of California system, Nantina Vgontzas explains that it was necessary for the core group of activists to organize themselves:

We felt that a union with this history and the potential to set precedence could do much better. The labor movement can do much better. As members, we tried hard to push our leadership in a more militant direction, but we reached a point where a change in vision and strategy required a change in leadership--a leadership that deeply believes in the activation of the rank and file as foundational to a vibrant labor movement and, really, to broader struggles for social justice in this country. We knew there was support for this kind of orientation among our fellow members, so we decided to follow the long tradition of union reform efforts and put our platform out there.

In a flurry of activity over several weeks, the AWDU group circulated literature and blitzed the membership to talk about the bargaining team elections, including at the NYU Polytechnic campus in Brooklyn, where many international graduate students are obliged to work for $10 per hour because their visas do not allow them to work off the NYU campus.

Calling for democracy, social justice and a strong contract, AWDU's message resonated with graduate student employees around NYU, leading to the strong showing at the September 17 vote. The turnout itself of about 650 voters, almost as many as for the certification election, indicated the extent of revived interest among members.

Now that they've won a majority of seats on the bargaining team, the fight is only beginning. NYU AWDU will still have to contend with the union staff and International UAW representatives, who have viewed their dissenting viewpoints as "anti-union" activity. To stay true to their objectives, they will have to win a strong first contract from a deeply entrenched, powerful and very politically connected administration that is intent on pursuing the neo-liberalization of the university.

But AWDU can also count on support from other UAW graduate student employee locals that are now under activist leadership in the UC system and at UMass Amherst.

Ultimately, as the workforce that performs an enormous share of the undergraduate instruction at NYU, graduate employees have plenty of avenues for disruption and workplace actions that could tip the balance of power into their favor and win a strong contract from one of the wealthiest universities in the country.

Further Reading

From the archives