NYU Grad Students Threaten Strike

NYU says it ‘went further than other private university' in contract talks

The graduate student union at New York University (NYU)—the only such union at a private university in the country—voted earlier this week to strike on Nov. 9 if the administration continues its refusal to participate in contract negotiations.

The Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC)—which is affiliated with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110—has been without a contract since Aug. 31, when its original four-year agreement with NYU expired.

Eighty-five percent of the members of GSOC voted in favor of setting the Nov. 9 strike deadline, according to committee member and NYU teaching assistant Susan Valentine.

The strikes comes after GSOC had declined a contract proposal from NYU. The proposed contract would have given the university the authority to unilaterally change its graduate students’ wages, health coverage, and other benefits, according to Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110.

NYU spokesman John Beckman expressed disappointment at the strike vote.

“While NYU values the freedom to express...differences of opinion, there’s no justification for harming our students’ education as a mode of expression,” Beckman said in a statement.

He added that the UAW broke its promise not to interfere with academic decision-making.

“In spite of this, NYU once again went further than any other private university, and made a proposal to the UAW in early August,” the statement said.

However, union officials, who rejected the offer, said it put too much power in the hands of the university.

“NYU is trying to put this forward as if they made a real bargaining proposal, but they did not,” Rosenstein said.

The proposal did not include a third-party grievance procedure, she added.

“What they put down in this paper would not be enforceable in any fashion,” Rosenstein said.

Union officials also disputed the university’s assertion that the UAW had interfered with academic decisions.

Rosenstein said that the union had filed grievances after the university changed the classification of some graduate student positions to avoid paying the wages and health benefits stipulated in the original contract.

“These were not academic issues,” she said. “These were economic issues.”

University officials declined to comment for this article beyond the statement.

In the university statement, Beckman noted that private universities have no obligation to collectively bargain, citing a 2004 decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The university had originally recognized the union in 2002 after the NLRB ruled in 2000 that graduate students are workers and have the right to unionize.

2004, the NLRB reversed course and ruled against unionization efforts at Brown University, which would “intrude upon the academic relationship between the university and students.”

“However, there’s nothing in the 2004 decision that prevents NYU from negotiating with us,” Valentine said.

Graduate students are concerned that the university could suddenly change the levels of benefits if there is no contract in place, she said.

Teaching assistants would also lose the option of taking their grievances to the union and possibly an outside arbiter, Valentine added.

She said that the looming strike is not meant to address any specific demands made by the union.

“At this point, we’re just asking them to sit down and negotiate with us in good faith,” Valentine said.

If no compromise is reached, the strike would be at least the third of its kind this year. Five-day strikes this April by non-unionized graduate students at Yale and Columbia were unsuccessful in securing union contracts.

Rosenstein said there is widespread support from the university community for the union and for the original contract, which won a 38 percent stipend increase and health care benefits for graduate students.

Valentine said that over 250 faculty members have already contacted GSOC for assistance in moving their classes off campus to avoid crossing the union’s picket lines.

In his statement, Beckman said that the university will try to minimize the disruption from the strike.

“Our classes and activities will go forward,” he said.

Union officials said the university administration could avert the strike by coming to the bargaining table.

“We can end this at any time if they sit down to negotiate with us,” Valentine said. “The ball is in their court.”

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.