A victory for NYU grad employees

March 16, 2015

Donnie D. reports on the vindication of a long struggle by graduate student workers fighting for a union contract at New York University.

TIRELESS ORGANIZING--and an overwhelming vote to authorize a strike--paid off for Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW Local 2110) members when they won a tentative agreement at New York University (NYU) in March. Graduate student workers, undergrads and labor activists gathered at a town hall meeting on March 11 to celebrate what union activist and law school student Leo Gertner called "the first union of its kind."

This is a first contract for GSOC, which won recognition from NYU in December 2013, and the first-ever agreement between a private university and a graduate student workers' union. The bargaining team, led by members of the reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), who were elected to the bargaining committee in last September, have stressed democracy and members' involvement in the union.

In December 2014, 1,100 members took part in a vote to authorize a strike, with 95 percent voting "yes." A strike date was set for March 10. The night before the strike deadline--after the university had sent not one, but two e-mails to all university students scolding GSOC's demands as "unreasonable" and describing the crumbs they were offering as a "fair deal"--the bargaining committee marched into an 11th-hour negotiation session, as undergraduate supporters lined up on both sides of the hallway outside.

Members of GSOC and their supporters speak out at a campus forum
Members of GSOC and their supporters speak out at a campus forum

A large group of GSOC members and undergraduate supporters remained outside the room for periodic consultation as the negotiations dragged on. Finally, at 1:30 a.m., union negotiators reached a favorable tentative agreement, averting the strike.

THIS ISN'T the first time GSOC has demanded that NYU improve the conditions many graduate students and undergrads face in the increasingly corporate educational environment. After its original certification in 2000, GSOC won its first contract in 2001. But in 2005, the National Labor Relations Board reversed its previous decision considering graduate students as workers at private universities, granting them union bargaining rights. The university broke a GSOC strike that year, and the union was decertified.

Speaking at the March 11 town hall meeting, professor and president of NYU-American Association of University Professors Andrew Ross described the 1 Percent mentality of the administration. For NYU, it's not just about the money with GSOC, but about "power in the workplace" being put in the hands of the graduate student workers, Ross explained. "The last time I talked to GSOC was back in 2006, after the strike was broken, and NYU claimed GSOC is dead," Ross said. "It turned out to be a very shallow grave."

A shallow grave it was. GSOC came back more organized and militant than ever, after members elected the social movement unionist AWDU caucus to represent them in contract negotiations in September 2014.

GSOC was able to solidify a network of solidarity and the internal union democracy it needed to be able to carry through a strike threat. "Through coalition planning and public action, through these very efforts, we made our strike threat credible," said Natasha Raheja, an AWDU member on the GSOC bargaining committee.

AWDU member and organizer Sean Larson emphasized the ownership that GSOC members took over their union:

The crucial factor that opened the way for us to achieve such a victory as a union has been our mobilized membership. Since last September, when the AWDU leadership was elected, we have held numerous public actions and open bargaining sessions, in which all union members could be present and participate. When the time came to leverage our power through a credible strike threat, GSOC members were already involved.

This campaign has shown that active, engaged union democracy is not only respectable for its own sake, but the best way to produce real results for our membership. But our commitment to union democracy and social justice doesn't end with the contract. You can be sure this is just the beginning of continued mobilization to make further wins for social justice, both on campus and in New York City.

THE TENTATIVE three-year agreement includes:

-- Raising NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering grads' hourly pay rate from $10 to $15 immediately, and to $20 by the end of the contract;

Up to $1,500 in bonuses each academic year for NYU Poly workers;

Guaranteed annual minimum increases on total compensation;

90 percent individual health care for all previously uncovered PhD student workers;

A newly established landmark family health care fund;

Formal labor-management committees;

Fees for StuDent dental plan covered;

Broadening fee waivers.

These gains are important for graduate students at NYU and across the nation. At a university where foreign graduate students report having to sleep on park benches and graduate student workers with children receive little to no assistance from the university to carry on with their studies, these gains don't just raise the bar for what graduate students should be able to demand of a university, but show that mobilized, public collective bargaining can win them.

In the environment of the corporate university, it's sometimes difficult for many students to envision a change in the status quo. NYU, a university that is supposedly non-profit, yet made $399 million in 2013, has the country's highest debt among its students and graduates. At the same time, reports of corruption by NYU administration are rampant, including well-documented violations at NYU's satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, administrators using university money for beach homes, and destructive expansion across the city in a plan called "NYU 2031." NYU's blatant disregard for its "educational mission," even as a private university, is guided by the prioritization of property and profit over people.

As the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike showed, unions have the potential to form the frontline of defense against the neoliberalization of education. "We are stronger together and we are united in this," Raheja said in December. "It is in our interest to maintain the integrity of the university and fight its corporatization."

THIS SENTIMENT resonated with the network of undergraduates that GSOC reached out to in the lead-up to the strike deadline. Graduate student workers interact with undergraduates on a daily basis, whether it's grading their papers, assisting students to understand lessons from lectures, or through organizing around social justice causes.

Representatives from GSOC's bargaining committee, AWDU, the International Socialist Organization, the Student Labor Action Movement and NYU Divest organized a panel discussion to explain to undergraduates why the university had pushed GSOC to call for a strike.

The day after the panel, NYU Provost David McLaughlin sent out a university-wide memorandum with misleading and grossly inaccurate information to counter GSOC's possible strike against the university. Four hours after McLaughlin's e-mail was sent, the network of undergraduates among whom GSOC had built support formed a group of 30 students, who went directly to the provost's office to demand he retract his complete mischaracterization and obvious anti-union rhetoric.

Three days later, this same network of undergraduates returned to the provost's office with 60 undergraduate students and a letter signed by 500 undergraduate students who planned to support GSOC's planned strike against NYU. "It was obvious which side we were on," undergraduate Jonah Walters said at the March 11 town hall, adding that he was excited to see a "student movement in embryo" show itself with such passionate organizing with such short notice by the undergraduates.

As undergraduates explained in a letter to the NYU administration:

We reject the administration's efforts to pit undergraduate students against graduate student workers, including many of our teachers and friends, and lend our full support to the members of GSOC/UAW 2110. Graduate students teach our sections, grade our papers and exams, answer our e-mails late at night and support our academic growth. We are committed to standing beside graduate student workers throughout the strike, as they have so often stood beside us.

Now, after this victory, GSOC has the potential to not only fight for the fair treatment of graduate workers, but is also in the position to improve conditions in the workplace that improve undergraduate education, back social justice initiatives of faculty members, and push for affordable tuition or full tuition freezes at the university.

The AWDU is stressing that GSOC, their membership and the undergraduates who stand in solidarity with them must continue mobilizing and holding NYU accountable. In a country where "right-to-work" laws are one factor holding back the labor movement, GSOC has set a precedent for graduate students to follow in the heart of the corporate university.

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