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Working In These Times

Tuesday, May 4, 2010, 8:13 am

NYU Grad Student Workers Renew Fight for Right to Organize

BY David Moberg

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After a decade of organizing, including a seven-month strike, graduate student workers at New York University made it clear on Monday they still want a union. They filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election to determine if the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW will represent 1,800 teaching, research and lab assistants and other student workers.   

“We perform essential services for the university,” says GSOC organizer and third year Ph.D. candidate in media, culture and communication studies Kari Hensley. “We just think we should have the rights of workers and be able to collectively bargain with our employer, pushing for a more secure and stable work environment.”

Their action is likely to trigger both a change in interpretation of labor law and a new wave of campus organizing.

Students at the large private university first won the right to organize under the Clinton-era NLRB, which decided in 2000 that work as a teaching assistant or similar position counts as a job with all the rights to organize and bargain collectively. That right is recognized in many states for grad students in public universities, which are covered by state labor laws, and increasing numbers have formed unions over the past four decades (such as the universities of Wisconsin, California, and Illinois).

NYU grad student workers won major improvements in their contract in 2002–40-percent wage increase, fully-paid health insurance, workload standards, sickness and bereavement leave, and a grievance procedure.  Grad student workers on other private university campus also began organizing.

Then in 2004 Bush’s board appointees reversed the earlier decision, ruling in a case involving Brown University graduate students that their work was simply incidental to being a student, and they had no rights as workers that the university had to recognize. 

NYU refused to negotiate a new contract in 2005, and students went on a valiant but ultimately losing strike for a contract. But they continued to organize with UAW support, signing up a majority of student workers each year, staging protests, and fighting administration attempts to undermine them. The UAW protested the Brown decision at the International Labor Organization, which criticized the U.S. for violating international labor rights.

When NYU set up a House of Delegates as an alternative to a union, GSOC ran a slate that won a strong majority of the delegate seats and pushed for renewed bargaining. GSOC also fought efforts to move some grad student workers into an adjunct faculty union.

“I think interest in the union is growing, and Obama’s election sparked the new interest,” Hensley said. “That gave a glimmer of hope we could overturn the Brown decision.”  The board now includes a majority likely to vote to overturn Brown—Wilma Liebman, who dissented from it in 2004, and the new Obama appointees, Craig Becker and Mark Pearce, have both studied the issue and written defenses of grad student workers’ right to organize.

“We think the current board will adhere more faithfully to the purpose of the statute,” says UAW secretary-treasurer Elizabeth Bunn, director of the union’s Technical, Office and Professional division and new AFL-CIO director of organizing. “We’re not trying to invent a wild idea. These workers have right to representation in almost every state with public worker union rights. We hope to bring the private sector in line with the public mainstream.”

The national NLRB could let the case wend its way upwards via appeals or simply take on the issue of the right to organize directly, then return it to the region for fact-finding. But the process is not likely to be fast.

If GSOC wins, the floodgates may be opened to much more private university campus organizing. As authors of The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace argue, NYU is simply a well-developed example of the corporatization of higher education, with 72 percent of faculty not on a tenure track (for example, teaching assistants and adjuncts). 

But the trend towards exploitation of student labor, sub-contracted service workers, contingent faculty and others in a university shelling out big bucks for presidents and a few superstar professors should provide fertile ground for organizing not only grad students but also a wide range of workers. Although grad student unions that were near recognition at schools like Brown, Harvard and Tufts did not maintain themselves like NYU’s GSOC, organizers report interest in unionization continues.

“We have every reason to believe that the interest graduate student employees had in bargaining has not diminished,” Bunn says. “And we’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”  Other unions, such as the Teachers (AFT) and Communications Workers (CWA), also have organized grad student employees.

The prospects look good, and the effort is important not just to improve those workers’ lives or strengthen the labor movement, but also for labor unions to have a place inside and to influence institutions shaping the culture and national ideology on many issues.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at

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