The Antiunion Devil in the Details

FAR4, a new graduate fellowship package, is a far cry from a decent labor contract.
By Rana Jaleel

Rightly or wrongly, a language of “firsts” has long permeated graduate student labor at New York University. In 2002, NYU’s graduate student employees were the first in the nation to secure a union contract at a private university. In 2005, we were also the first to lose our contract, precipitating a bitter six-month-long strike.

Since 2005, NYU graduate employees have worked without the security of a union contract. We have taught classes, run labs, graded papers, held office hours, and performed administrative and other work. Now, we are once again at the forefront of an academic labor controversy that we believe has far-reaching consequences for graduate employee unions.

In late March, I was having an early dinner with several other members of NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC)—which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110—when Dacia Mitchell, a fifth-year PhD candidate in American studies, burst into the restaurant. She had been charged to find us by a supportive department chair who had just been informed of a drastic administrative proposal to restructure the way graduate employee teaching and, therefore, undergraduate classes and learning would occur at NYU. The plan involved a change in the graduate fellowship package for students enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). At that time, GSAS fellowships were five-year packages with two years of required teaching or other work.

The proposal—Financial Aid Restructuring 4 (FAR4)— seemed on its face promising. FAR4 would decouple the teaching requirement from the fellowship package and provide GSAS graduate students with five years of uninterrupted funding, which, by theoretically eliminating any work requirement, would reduce time to degree. There would be no more “teaching assistants,” Mitchell informed us. Instead, the administration was saying that all graduate teaching would be considered adjunct work. If we chose to teach, we would be paid on top of our fellowship according to the rate established by the adjunct contract—and we would all be eligible to join the adjunct union, ACTUAW Local 7902. The NYU administration planned to implement FAR4 by the fall 2009 semester, less than six months away.

I remember that at this point in the conversation, someone dropped a glass of wine.

The table then erupted with questions. The NYU administration had long claimed its graduate employees were “apprentices” and not workers subject to the protections of federal labor law. For almost ten years, the majority of all NYU graduate employees, who teach and do research, have authorized GSOC/UAW Local 2110 to be their representative for collective bargaining. Was the administration actually acknowledging our labor as work? What impact would this have on the adjunct union and our own union? If GSAS graduate students were no longer required to teach, who would do the teaching? How would FAR4 affect the quality of undergraduate education?

The More Things Change . . .

The next day, we went looking for answers. Our reconnaissance missions to various departments produced absolutely nothing. None of the affected groups—the faculty, the graduate students, the undergraduates, or the adjunct union—seemed to have heard of the proposed restructuring. What we would understand in the coming weeks was that the NYU administration’s slow leaks of information about the restructuring were yet another attempt to divide teaching assistants from research assistants and other graduate employees who perform nonteaching labor, as well as the adjunct union from the graduate employee union. We would also learn that the restructuring of graduate employment was not limited to GSAS but was occurring under different names—or no name at all—all over NYU.

Nonetheless, by June 20, FAR4 went from proposal to policy.

Implementing the restructuring without any meaningful input from faculty committees, graduate employees, undergraduates, or GSOC/UAW was of a piece with the strategy of a top-down university—one that those with any memory of the past behavior of President John Sexton and the NYU administration had come to expect. Despite zealous and repeated assurances from the administration that FAR4 is good for graduate education and for graduate labor rights, the current restructuring is only masquerading as a prounion, cash windfall for graduate teachers— all other graduate employees notwithstanding.

A History of Graduate Organizing at NYU

The 2002 GSOC/UAW contract was a boon for NYU graduate employees as well as the graduate employee labor movement at large. Highlights from our first contract included an average raise in pay of almost 40 percent across departments, with guaranteed yearly raises of at least $1,000; the establishment of an independent and binding grievance procedure; and guaranteed health care as well as paid sick leave and bereavement leave. The gains of our GSOC/UAW contract invigorated both private and public university organizing efforts and compelled universities across the nation to raise stipend awards to keep pace with our hard-won wage increases.

The current cadre of graduate employees is the express beneficiary of the 2002 GSOC/UAW contract. Without the terms and conditions that it set, many of us (including me) could never have afforded to attend graduate school at New York University. Before the 2002 contract, the average fellowship stipend—if the student was fortunate enough to have one—hovered in the $12,000 range. Tuition and fee remissions were largely illusory, and there was no university-provided health care for graduate employees— pretty much any imaginable expense had to be paid out of pocket. And most NYU graduate employees were not (and are not) equipped with exceptionally roomy pockets— particularly after an encounter with the Manhattan realestate market, in which average rents for one-bedroom apartments run between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.

Despite majority support among NYU graduate employees and the larger NYU community, when our contract expired in 2005, the NYU administration took advantage of a partisan 2004 ruling by President George W. Bush’s appointees on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and refused to negotiate. The 2004 decision, Brown University, classified graduate employees as “students” and not workers deserving of federal legal protection. It gave the NYU administration legal cover to refuse to negotiate a new contract. Brown University reversed a unanimous, bipartisan NLRB decision made only four years earlier, in which graduate employees at private universities were classified as both students and workers—just as graduate employees at public universities have been for over thirty years.

The handing down of Brown University did not merely chill graduate employee unionization at private universities; it froze it. Election ballots that would have established collective bargaining for graduate employees at Columbia University, Brown University, Tufts University, and the University of Pennsylvania went uncounted.

The inequities of Brown University have not gone unnoted. Scholars and human-rights activists alike have condemned both the decision itself and the NYU administration’s uncritical embrace of it. During the strike, more than five thousand faculty members from around the world signed a petition urging NYU president John Sexton to negotiate with GSOC/UAW. In April 2008, the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, lambasted the Brown University decision for denying graduate employees at private universities their internationally supported rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Much has been written about the 2005–06 strike. Now that the NYU administration has performed a complete about-face and admitted that at least some graduate teaching is, after all, work, the NYU administration’s current position—its portrayals of FAR4 as, in the words of GSAS dean Catharine Stimpson in NYU’s undergraduate newspaper, “an exciting journey” and evidence that the university “really cares about its graduate students”—needs to be seen in the context of our prior struggle. The university and the union are once again at odds in how they see things. Stimpson was quoted in Inside Higher Ed last April as saying that the restructuring has the potential to be “great for graduate students,” adding, “In a time of cutbacks, if we do this, NYU is investing in graduate education.” We are not so convinced of that investment.

The details of the NYU administration’s behavior toward its striking graduate employees and the larger NYU community are well documented in The University against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace, a 2008 anthology that includes articles by faculty members and graduate students who were closely involved in the quest to keep graduate employees at NYU under a GSOC/UAW contract. Contributors to that collection tell of how, during the strike, as the end of the fall 2005 semester loomed, the NYU administration resorted to tactics against striking graduate employees that would have been clearly illegal prior to the Brown University decision, including the threatened loss of both future employment opportunities and future fellowship semesters. Administrators also covertly monitored Blackboard, an online teaching aid, in an effort to determine the identities of striking graduate employees.

In the heady months following President Barack Obama’s election, many people expected some form of antiunion recidivism from the NYU administration. FAR4, as many administrative faculty have openly told us, is just that: the NYU administration’s publicly avowed attempt to forestall NYU graduate employee unionization and circumvent the restoration of fair labor practices that many hope and predict will accompany the installation of a newly Democratic NLRB. With FAR4, these faculty members report, the NYU administration hopes to avoid all that “gnarliness” outside the library—the drum beats and chants of “Contract Now!” that punctuated the long days of the strike.

Four years after the strike, we believe the NYU administration is banking on the collapse of institutional memory in an attempt to manipulate and outwait GSOC/UAW and its current generation of organizers. In a revisionist spin, some NYU administrators and faculty have publicly encouraged graduate students to thank the “TA union” for prefiguring the fellowship-teaching split that allowed the administration to envision FAR4.

But most graduate employees are hardly saying “you’re welcome.”

While receiving wages on top of fellowship awards might seem an unequivocal plus for graduate teachers, in the absence of a comprehensive, binding employment agreement, increased workloads, rising co-pays, and reductions in health-care coverage, for example, vitiate the benefits of more money.

And while actuaries might characterize graduate employees en masse as a healthy, hearty lot, we are hardly immune to the ravages of time, childbearing and child care, or life-threatening illnesses. We get repetitive stress injuries from lab and computer work. We get pregnant and need time to perform a different sort of labor. We get cancer. Without a GSOC/UAW contract specific to all of the work that graduate employees perform, we get no guaranteed leave. Instead, we must work or potentially lose our jobs and our health insurance. As graduate employees working without the protections of a GSOC/UAW contract, our futures—our very lives—are beholden to the strictures of our employment and the whims of our supervisors. Graduate employees often get sick and then disappear. Some reemerge, saddled with debt, but many others never return.

For these reasons, we view the NYU administration’s latest action as particularly deplorable. The administration, regardless of its sunny rhetoric, is not recognizing the full collective bargaining rights of its graduate employees by claiming to shift our membership to the adjunct union. The terms and conditions of our GSOC/UAW contract were specifically tailored to reflect the work that graduate employees perform on campus—which includes more than just teaching. Not all graduate employee positions— not even all graduate teaching positions—are eligible for protection under the ACT-UAW Local 7902 contract.

Nevertheless, the NYU administration has not merely implied that graduate employees might join the adjunct union but has handed out pamphlets at graduate orientations and teacher trainings that lead graduate employees to believe the question of union representation is a done deal and that they are members of ACT-UAW 7902. Graduate employees who teach have also been alerted that union dues can be subtracted from their paychecks. Some of our GSOC members in the sciences have even been warned by their faculty that it would be illegal for them to sign a GSOC/UAW union authorization card because they are already members of the adjunct union. None of this is accurate.

To this date, the NYU administration has yet to contact ACT-UAW Local 7902 to alert them to this “graduate membership drive” on their behalf or to discuss how graduate employment restructuring would affect the integrity of their unit. GSOC/UAW and ACT-UAW Local 7902 have been in consultation, and ACT-UAW Local 7902 agrees that GSOC/UAW is the union for all graduate employees and stands in solidarity with our efforts to secure a second contract of our own.

Restructuring = Crisis

Far from improving graduate education or sounding the death knell of GSOC, the administration’s restructuring of graduate employment is a calculated rollback to the very precontract conditions that compelled NYU graduate employees to organize in the first place. As one of our members is fond of saying, members of the NYU board of trustees brought us a deregulated U.S. economy. With an implementation strategy euphemistically called “departmental customization,” these same trustees are regifting us with the deregulation of NYU graduate student labor. The result has been uncertainty, as this purposeful dismantling of the remains of the GSOC/UAW contract strips away the last semblances of a fair and balanced approach to graduate employment. Under the wave of graduate employment restructuring, the deleterious effects of no union contract—and hence no stability, security, or protection—have been amplified. While there may no longer be teaching assistantships at NYU, graduate employees are still doing the work—both teaching and otherwise. And, without a GSOC contract, they are doing it again without protection.

Since the restructuring, work arrangements in some departments have been rendered invisible, becoming “mentorships” that, while ostensibly voluntary, are nonetheless firmly expected to be embraced by graduate employees. And although graduate teaching is now considered adjunct work independent of the fellowship package, many graduate employees report being told by their departments that they must teach as a condition of their enrollment.

For postfellowship graduate employees and international graduate employees, the situation is even more troubling. In many departments, sixth- and seventh-year graduate students had often been able to secure teaching assignments of a one-one load that paid at fellowship rates. With the switch to adjunct rates, these students must now teach at least a two-three load to guarantee a comparable income, which poses problems both for advanced graduate employees trying to finish their dissertations and for international graduate employees who require proof of certain levels of income to retain their visas.

Under the terms of the new restructuring, NYU graduate employees are once again starkly reminded of how much we stand to lose when our employer retains the unilateral discretion to alter our wages, benefits, and working conditions without comment or notice.

GSOC’s response remains to encourage graduate employees to join our union, the union for all graduate employees, as we seek the restoration of our rights before the NLRB. We are also garnering support for the Teaching and Research Assistants Collective Bargaining Rights Act—federal legislation that would amend the National Labor Relations Act specifically to guarantee collective bargaining rights for graduate employees at private universities and colleges. To sign an online petition in support of the act, please visit

Rana Jaleel is a PhD candidate in the Program in American Studies at New York University and holds a JD from Yale Law School. She has commented on NYU graduate employee unionization in the American Prospect and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her e-mail address is [email protected].