Victory cries rang out across campus the night of December 11. Tears of joy were shed.
The American Arbitration Association had just announced that New York University graduate employees had voted 98.4 percent in favor of union representation—after eight years of struggle for recognition.
This makes NYU once again the only private university with unionized graduate employees.
The Graduate Student Organizing Committee/Science and Engineers Together (GSOC-UAW)—which brings together two organizing drives across NYU’s campuses—is affiliated with the United Auto Workers and includes more than 1,200 graduate employees.
“We hope this inspires graduate employees at all universities to organize for their rights,” said Brady Fletcher, a PhD student in Cinema Studies.
GSOC and UAW made history in 2000 when they won a precedent-setting case that recognized graduate students as employees under national labor law. The decision set off a wave of organizing at private universities.
But administrators quickly allied against graduate employee unions—and Brown University, with support from several major private universities, won an appeal that overturned NYU’s case in 2005, under the Bush National Labor Relations Board.
In its decision, the NLRB reasoned that the labor performed by graduate assistants was part of an educational process, over which faculty and administrators should maintain control. The principle of equality of bargaining power, the Board ruled, was ill-suited to the realm of higher education.
With employers no longer legally obligated to recognize graduate employee unions, unionization attempts at many schools were quickly busted. Organizing committees disbanded. Ballots from a union vote at Columbia University were impounded. And NYU—which had settled a first contract with its graduate employees in 2001—refused to bargain another contract.
In fall 2005, NYU graduate workers decided—by an 85 percent majority—to strike to demand recognition. Determined to break the union, the administration threatened international students, spied on faculty emails, and refused to rehire anyone who didn’t leave the picket line.
The strike was called off in May 2006, but graduate employees continued to organize and demand recognition.
A Wake-Up Call
For the last eight years, graduate employees at NYU have been living with the consequences of not having a union. Fletcher says employees lost a voice just as health care costs increased sharply, new fees were imposed, and tuition remission was withdrawn for some.