Graduate student employees at New York University (NYU) have pulled off a first in the world of labor rights — for the second time. On Dec. 11, 2013, graduate students voted to unionize, making NYU the only private university to recognize a graduate-employee union. The school previously held this distinction in 2000, when graduate students voted for representation by the United Auto Workers. But in 2004, the National Labor Relations Board’s Brown University ruling stripped graduate students of collective-bargaining rights under the rationale that they are primarily students, not employees. NYU subsequently refused to continue negotiating with its graduate union when the contract expired in 2005.
After it lost union recognition, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) waged a semester-long strike that ended in bitter defeat in 2006. But graduate students didn’t give up. GSOC re-petitioned the NLRB for recognition in 2010, and has continued to bring pressure to bear on the NYU administration. In May 2013, then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn headlined a GSOC rally, and 250 state officials signed open letters in support of the union.
Ultimately, GSOC regained its union by bypassing the NLRB and negotiating an agreement directly with NYU, under which graduate assistants withdrew their NLRB petition, and in exchange administrators agreed to remain neutral during the unionization vote and bargain in good faith. GSOC member Matthew Canfield tells In These Times, “The board is unpredictable and maybe not always the best solution when we have needs for justice in our workplace right now.”
The victory isn’t a total one. Without a new NLRB ruling, the Brown decision remains on the books, which has concerned GSOC members. But contract negotiations are set to commence in January, and both sides report optimism. Moreover, the agreement provides graduate student organizers everywhere with a model for reclaiming their labor rights amidst a steady tide of higher education corporatization. One graduate organizer at the University of Chicago told Al Jazeera America that the GSOC victory “put some options on the table that we haven’t even been able to imagine.”