he graduate students at New
York University (NYU) made history in 2001 by successfully negotiating
a contract between a teachers’ assistants (TA) union and
a private U.S. university. However, going into Thanksgiving break
in 2005, the university still refused to negotiate with the union
for a second contract. As a result some classes were cancelled while
others were moved to off-campus locations.
The trouble started last year when the National Labor Relations
Board reversed a previous decision that said graduate student instructors
were workers. The new decision did not bar private universities
from recognizing TAs unions, but made it optional. NYU’s contract
with the TAs union, a local of the United Auto Workers, then expired
At NYU, TAs receive stipends in exchange for their teaching services.
Before they won their contract, some of them were paying for health
insurance out of pocket, says Susan Valentine, a graduate student
in medieval history.
In 2005 the university administration took a hard stance. “In
August we proposed a new agreement: recognition of the UAW as the
bargaining agent for our graduate students on economic matters (stipends,
health care, employment conditions), but not academic matters,”
wrote Provost David McLaughlin in a letter to NYU students in October.
“We made this proposal to bridge the goals important to the
university and the UAW. The union unambiguously rejected the proposal.”
Ross, a professor of American Studies and co-chair of the NYU chapter
of the American Association of University Professors, says that
this is only partially true. Ross, who is also co-founder of the
NYU-based group Faculty Democracy, said this offer had two parts
that were impossible for any union to live with. First, NYU wanted
a contract that would make the workplace an open shop where it would
be optional for workers to join the union and pay dues. The union
wanted an agency shop where not every worker would be required to
join, but all workers would have to pay union dues. The other part,
according to Ross, was that the Administration was opposed to having
a third party settle dispute—and instead wanted all disputes
settled by management.
Concerning “academic matters,” Valentine says that graduate
students are now more invested in these than before. “The big
ticket faculty members are drawn here by high salaries and low teaching
loads,” said Valentine. “The graduate student TAs make
up for it.”
Author Jennifer Washburn notes this trend in her book,
. “NYU has been on this path of trying to raise its
rankings among research institutions,” she said. “That
has come at a cost.” More and more of the actual instruction
for undergraduates is not done by the big name professor who attracts
eager students to the university, but by overworked graduate students
who often struggle to make ends meet, in addition to adjunct lecturers.
Without union protection, the TAs have no way to ensure that their
stipends will compensate them fairly or have a means to voice concerns
in the area of teaching.
“It is steadily paying less attention to the quality and integrity
of their undergraduate education,” Washburn said of the school.
Valentine feels that many undergraduates support the strikers. “Our
working conditions are their learning conditions,” she said.
Paul has written for
In These Times, Punk Planet,
Time Out Chicago
, and many other publications.