This week, the graduate students of New York University (NYU) officially formed the first graduate student union at a private American university. This historic development came about as a result of last Aprils unprecedented National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling which granted them the right to do so. After losing a court appeal, NYU was finally forced to recognize the union. We hope this long-deserved recognition of graduate students as true employees of the university will stimulate improvement of graduate student life at private universities across the country.
The debate over whether graduate students should have the right to unionize hinged upon the nature of their work. The NYU administration maintained that the work performed by graduate students serves as an integral part of their education, and therefore exempts them from full worker-status, including the right to unionize. But these arguments fail to take into account the large amounts of menial work graduate students perform, often in departments completely unrelated to their field. Shouldering clerical duties for a professor does not enhance the edification of graduate students--if anything, the work detracts from their studies. These extra tasks should bestow graduate students the right to collective bargaining.
Graduate students' newfound ability to unionize at NYU should open the door for a similar extension of rights at many other private universities. Yale, for example, where graduate students have long awaited this privilege, should now allow its graduate students to collectively bargain which they can demand better compensation, housing and benefits, all of which have been consistently poor at many universities.
While this new right should foster necessary changes at some universities, where graduate students are not treated fairly, Harvard will probably not feel the effects of the decision, as there has been little to no support for such a union. However, because Harvard seems to be the exception rather than the norm in its excellent rapport with graduate students, the NYU union should prompt similar, necessary action at private universities around the country.
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