March 13, 2001

NYU Recognizes Grad Student Union

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Never before has a private university acknowledged the right of its graduate student employees to unionize. However, on March 1, New York University (NYU) graduate student employees and members from the United Auto Workers (UAW) union lifted a 20-year precedent by signing an agreement recognizing the creation of a union for graduate teaching assistants.

“We won! Finally we have our own union and a chance to negotiate our ideas about how we can make life better for graduate students,” Kimberly Johnson, a graduate employee in NYU American Studies department told UAW News.

The union has been a work in progress since November, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) granted graduate students the right to form unions at private institutions.

The decision also improved the outlook for 2,200 Yale University graduate students who have been striving to unionize for a decade.

In an effort seen by some to stunt the organizing campaign, Yale approved a $13,700 graduate student stipend, a 20 percent increase from the current school term. Yale officials denied accusations that the pay increase was an attempt to deter students from unionizing. Instead, the officials attributed it to a bonus that teaching assistants receive periodically on behalf of the university.

Student organizers cited long work hours with low wages for graduate students fueled their efforts to unionize at Yale and other universities. The NLRB argued that since graduate students are paid for their work as teaching, graduate and research assistants, they should enjoy the privilege of collective bargaining.

The students at NYU were planning a strike if their wishes for adequate compensation were not fulfilled. Despite the newly-formed union at NYU, the graduate students will not be involved in collective bargaining nor will they receive stipends.

The union will be used to overturn unfair academic practices and uphold academic values while improving the graduate student experience. It will not, however, pursue issues excluded from the terms and conditions of employment, such as curriculum, course work, degree requirements, tuition fees and student benefits.

“We are pleased to have reached this agreement with the university,” Elizabeth Bunn, UAW vice president told UAW News. “Graduate student employees across the country have a major stake in this historic achievement,” she said.

“It’s amazing the kind of support and networks these folks have. The word is out, graduate students everywhere are going to organize,” Bunn added.

The formation of the union sends a reminder out to graduate students at Cornell that they have voices and outlets available to them to make their wants known, said Robert Hickey grad.

“Personally, I think students have the right to unionize,” said Prof. Harry Katz, ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations) collective bargaining, law and history. “You can be an employee and a student.”

Joan Moriarity grad, also supports NYU’s decision to unionize.

“I thought it was a long time coming,” she said. “It makes graduate students more aware of their rights and power. We can use this decision to show that there is something to be gained from unionizing, but whether it happens or not is up to Cornell graduates.”

Hickey felt that NYU’s decision sends the message to Cornell and all private universities not to fight the movement of graduate students to unionize.

According to Patrick Carr, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, graduate students at Cornell receive sufficient pay and are not subjected to the grueling requirements that their peers at other schools must undergo.

“[Unionization] is a good move for NYU,” Carr said. “But I would not choose to lead an organization in the effort. I think we are not bad off compared to NYU, inner-city schools and Yale.”

He acknowledged that change at Cornell would be possible, but not absolutely necessary.

“There are things that could and would be improved by a union [at Cornell],” Carr said. “But I don’t think they are so major that people are willing to put themselves out on a limb.”

Archived article by Rachel Einschlag