In for the longue durée The graduate labour struggle at NYU
On 9 November 2005, the majority of New York Universityʼs 1,000 graduate student employees went on strike in order to force NYU to bargain a second contract with our graduate student employees union – the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the United Auto Workers, GSOC/UAW local 2110. Now in its ninth week (as of 8 January 2006), our strike has paralysed NYU, the largest private university in the United States. Hundreds of undergraduate classes and recitation sections have been cancelled, and many more papers and exams remain ungraded. While there have been a number of graduate student employee strikes at private American universities – including Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Columbia – during the past three years, the strike at NYU holds a unique place in American academic and labour history. Indeed, the future of academic worker unionization at private universities for some time to come may well be decided at NYU within the next few months.
In 2000 the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal body that regulates labour practices, ruled that NYU was legally obligated to recognize its graduate student employees as workers who have the right to unionize. And in 2002, NYU became the ﬁrst and only private university to have a recognized graduate student labour union. (Public universities are regulated by state, not federal, law and many have had unionized graduate students since the 1960s.) The ﬁrst contract the union won resulted in substantial material gains for NYUʼs graduate students, including guaranteed health insurance, a minimum annual salary with a wage increase on average of 40 per cent over ﬁve years, and the security of knowing that we would have stable and protected employment while we completed our graduate studies – all novelties for graduate students at NYU.
The successes at NYU inspired graduate students at other private research universities and within a year of our ﬁrst contract, union drives were under way at Brown, Yale,
Columbia, Tufts, University of Pennsylvania,
Cornell and Temple. In 2004, however, on appeal from a coalition of private university administrations, the NLRB, now staffed by anti-labour Bush appointees, overturned its earlier decision and made union recognition for graduate student employees at private universities optional. This ruling provided the NYU administration with legal leeway, and, as the end of our contract approached, it appointed a series of farcical committees to review whether to continue to recognize our union. Unsurprisingly, and despite a majority of graduate, undergraduate and faculty support, NYU refused to bargain, and since 31 August 2005 we have been working without a contract.
NYU President John Sexton has ominously dubbed NYU the ʻEnterprise Universityʼ, and, like many corporate employers, NYU relies heavily on underpaid, part-time labour. In fact, 75 per cent of the teaching at NYU is not done by its professors, but rather by its graduate students and adjunct teachers. The result is a workforce largely without health insurance, without job security, and without access to a living wage.
Private research universities like NYU are leading the trend in this model of academic de-professionalization and labour casualization while at the same time reaping revenue from skyrocketing tuition and room and board fees, now $45,000 a year at NYU.
Without a union, graduate students become the contingent labour force that sustains this employment model; the more prevalent the model becomes, the fewer tenure-track jobs are created. Graduate students understand ﬁrst-hand that the need to supplement our incomes with low-paying adjunct gigs undermines our chances of ﬁnding a tenuretrack job once weʼve ﬁnished our degrees. Weʼre ﬁghting for union representation now with an eye towards maintaining and improving academic labour standards for our professional future.
Of course the NYU administration understands this too, which is why they have committed seemingly unlimited resources to destroying our union. Our strike has exposed how much the university relies on graduate student labour, just as our union has demonstrated the beneﬁts that collective bargaining can bring to an academic workplace. It has also given NYU a chance to demonstrate what kind of employer it is.
The administration has spent millions of dollars to employ a corporate law ﬁrm whose website proclaims that the ʻpreservation of management rights is our goalʼ. Graduate students have been threatened and spied on, had their rights to freedom of speech and association trespassed against, while faculty supportive of the union have been subject to electronic surveillance. On 28 November, an especially punitive policy of retribution was implemented. Unlike most employers who dock pay for the duration of a strike, NYU announced that graduate students who continued to strike past 5 December would be denied their stipends and locked out of teaching positions for the entirety of next semester. Those who go out on strike next semester will be denied their stipends and locked out of teaching positions for the following two semesters. This policy, designed to intimidate all students, had NYUʼs large international student population as its particular target since their visa status prohibits them from working outside the university.
Nonetheless, on 5 December, the day that the ultimatum went into effect, the picket line in front of the library was ﬁlled with hundreds of striking graduate students chanting ʻYour deadlines mean nothing, our union isnʼt budging.ʼ Meanwhile, NYU has drawn the moral disapprobation of academics worldwide. Thousands have signed an online petition to protest NYUʼs behaviour, and many have written personal letters to President Sexton saying that they will discourage their students from enrolling in NYUʼs graduate programmes. Over a hundred international students signed a letter claiming that because of the hostile treatment they had received, they too would discourage students in their home countries from attending NYU. Now, as NYU begins the process of trying to lock out striking graduate students, many departments have told the administration that they simply will not comply. The next threat? There are rumours that recalcitrant departments may be placed in receivership. As we begin the spring semester, hundreds of graduate students remain on strike for union recognition and a second contract. One student from the history department has worn a placard that documents the sentiment here well: ʻWeʼre in it for the longue durée.ʼ
Leigh claire la bergeleigh claire la berge
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in American Studies at NYU.