Union Again at NYU

NYU grad students’ recent unionization after over a decade of struggle is a victory against the corporatized university.

Christy Thornton

Christy Thornton

New York University is a university born of a labor riot. In 1834, when New York City stonecutters learned that the stone for a new university building on Washington Square was being quarried and cut using free prison labor from the newly opened Sing Sing, they petitioned the state for intervention — the use of prison labor, they argued, was “taking the bread out of their mouths.”

When the state ignored their claims, they took to the streets of lower Manhattan, hammers in hand, for a four day riot. Eventually the National Guard was called in to quell the unrest, and the soldiers were stationed in Washington Square Park, so that the first stones for what would become NYU could be laid. It was, perhaps, an inauspicious beginning, foreshadowing a long history of labor agitation on NYU’s campus.

On December 11, workers wrote the most recent chapter of NYU’s labor history, this time at the ballot box. The graduate employees of NYU — including teaching, research, and program assistants at the Washington Square campus and at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute — won an overwhelming victory, voting 620 to 10 to be represented by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/United Auto Workers (GSOC/UAW) Local 2110. In doing so, we once again became the only private university student employees to have union representation.

The vote was the culmination of eight years of organizing since losing recognition in 2005, and is a step forward not only for NYU workers, but for graduate employees at other private universities, and for those fighting the corporatization of higher education across the country.


This victory was not, of course, the first time that GSOC won a union election. In 2000, after a two-year organizing campaign, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that NYU graduate workers were, indeed, employees, obliging the university to recognize the union. (That the ruling did so through established labor law that highlighted the applicability of the “traditional master-servant relationship” to the graduate student work experience must have smarted, despite the victory.) Even after the ruling, NYU’s administration resisted through legal challenges and public relations campaigns — even denying tenure to a faculty member, Joel Westheimer, who testified in front of the NLRB on behalf of GSOC.

In the administration’s eyes, faculty who dared to involve themselves in the struggle were too much of a liability. During Westheimer’s subsequent unfair labor practice hearing, an email from the Dean who unilaterally denied his tenure was submitted as evidence, detailing her preference for contingent, adjunct labor: “We need people,” Dean Anne Marcus wrote, “we can abuse, exploit, and then turn loose.”

NYU’s months of stalling and intimidation didn’t work. Pressured by a mobilization that included the support from undergraduates, faculty, and elected officials, the administration was forced to the table in 2001, hours before a scheduled strike vote. By early 2002, GSOC had a contract, and the victory buoyed organizing of NYU’s clerical workers and the adjunct faculty at NYU and the New School, both of which won union victories.

The graduate workers saw immediate tangible benefits as a result of the contract, which increased graduate student stipends by nearly 40% and reduced health care costs considerably. At the same time, graduate workers at other private colleges around the country, including Columbia, Yale, and Brown, began or intensified their organizing efforts.

The precedent NYU graduate workers had set, it seemed, was just too dangerous. Though graduate workers at many public universities are unionized under their state laws, never before had federal labor law recognized graduate students at private universities as employees. In 2004, the graduate workers at Brown University used the NYU decision to petition the NLRB for recognition. But in a partisan decision, the new Bush administration appointees on the Board decided that the relationship of graduate students to the university was “predominately academic, rather than economic.” The Board ruled that the Brown students did not qualify as employees, and thereby overturned the NYU decision.

When the existing contract at NYU expired, the administration refused to continue to recognize the union. Then-Executive Vice President Jacob Lew — who left NYU voluntarily to work for Citibank with a $685,000 exit bonus and is now Obama’s Treasury Secretary — was a key player in the anti-union efforts, serving on the “University Leadership Team.”

Lew and his ULT colleagues made clear that the university did not intend to negotiate with the union, repeatedly issuing communications that intimated the meddling of “Auto Workers” in what were, they insisted, academic affairs. As the union approached the date of a strike vote, hundreds of people protested in front of Bobst Library, home to the administration’s offices, and more than seventy people were arrested, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

As the fall semester of 2005 began without recognition from the administration, 85% of union members voted to strike, and the graduate employees walked off the job. NYU executives quickly began to warn of possible “consequences” for those graduate workers who participated; indeed, a handful were fired and punished. One striker, American Studies PhD student Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, remembers that “not only did NYU administrators directly target graduate employees, they also deputized individual faculty as proxies” to pressure graduate students to go back to work — a tactic that was particularly frightening for international students, who feared deportation if they participated.

The strike lasted through the spring, but numbers ultimately dwindled, and many graduate workers were demoralized. After a brief attempt at a parliamentary takeover of a new student government organization set up by the administration, the rank-and-file members and UAW leadership both set about strategizing to sustain a future campaign.

For the moment, it seemed the administration had won.


The refusal to recognize the union was part of President John Sexton’s larger strategic vision for the university. For Sexton, transforming NYU from a regional commuter college to a world-class research university requires a growth-driven, cost-cutting business model — one quite familiar to the finance and real estate executives who sit on NYU’s Board of Trustees.

And Sexton has never been content with simply changing the face of NYU. His strategy, he has argued since he took office in 2002, should serve as a model for higher education around the country and the world.

The university frequently deploys metrics on rising application numbers and university rankings to argue that Sexton’s strategy has been working. But other numbers have been rising, too. NYU’s tuition, for example, was $26,646 in 2002; by 2012, it was $44,848, a staggering increase of 68 percent in a decade. The cost of attending NYU is among the highest in the country, and its financial aid remains woefully inadequate. NYU has the highest total student debt in the country, and a typical student in one of the classes I teach is likely to graduate with 40 percent more student debt than the national average.

And while salaries for top executives have increased dramatically — with Sexton’s salary doubling over his tenure to $1.5 million, plus a $2.5 million length-of-service bonus and an $800,000 pension upon retirement — the vast majority of faculty salaries have stagnated, barely keeping up with inflation.

Also central to Sexton’s vision have been controversial expansion plans, with new campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, and a plan to add nearly three million square feet of space in the core of its Greenwich Village campus. When plans for the downtown expansion were announced, they were presented by the administration as a done deal.

But the lack of input from faculty in the planning process and the refusal to provide any financial information — when asked how the administration was planning to pay for so much building, especially on the heels of the financial crisis, a spokesperson would only say, “NYU is not afraid of debt” — began to spark resistance. Professors in thirty-nine departments across the university, including the Stern School of Business and the Economics department (not known to be hotbeds of radicalism) passed resolutions against the plan, calling for the administration to go back to the drawing board and take faculty input into account.

When it became clear that the administration had little intention of considering the growing opposition to the plan, professors redoubled their organizing efforts. And just as opposition was starting to spread, with hundreds of faculty joining a group called NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, major news outlets began to scrutinize the university, reporting about the exit bonuses given to Lew and other executives. The faculty began speaking out against the lack of administrative transparency and the disregard for shared governance in general; they were soon joined in their indignation by Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, who began an investigation into NYU’s financial practices.

Faculty complaints about the financial and administrative priorities of the university seemed vindicated when it was disclosed this summer that the university was footing the bill for high-priced vacation homes for its executives and star faculty in the medical and law schools.

Activist faculty began planning for a vote of no confidence in John Sexton’s leadership. The administration fought with every tool it could find, including refusing to provide a list of tenured faculty to the Faculty Senators Council, lest they be able to freely organize their colleagues. But after a series of procedural meetings and preliminary votes, in March 2013, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a resolution of no confidence in the president. It was followed by six more votes of no confidence from the faculty of other schools within the university, as well as one from the union of clerical workers (though the faculty of the medical and law schools passed resolutions of support for the president).

Though the Board of Trustees brushed off these votes of no confidence, growing media scrutiny of NYU’s finances meant that criticism of the Sexton vision was mounting from both inside and outside the university, and NYU’s public image was spinning quickly out of the administration’s control.

At a national conference of historians over the summer, nearly everyone who read my affiliation from my name tag offered something akin to their condolences before jokingly asking if I had a university-financed summer home in the Hamptons. When I assured them that I didn’t quite rank highly enough for such perks, many asked my opinion on the Sexton vision. “Well,” I invariably answered, “I’m in the union.” We had been on the frontlines of the fight against Sexton’s agenda for more than a decade.


Meanwhile, momentum had been gathering in the GSOC organizing campaign, as the arrival of the Obama administration seemed to promise new appointees to the NLRB who, it was hoped, might reverse the Brown decision and pave the way for recognition once again. In 2009, the university made a calculation that was, at least in part, intended to foreclose any further organizing by GSOC, but may have actually provided the legal space for a new GSOC petition.

For the first time, under a new set of guidelines on graduate funding, students would no longer be required to teach as part of their funding packages. When they did so, they would be hired as adjunct instructors, and paid accordingly. With this change, the administration reclassified the labor of hundreds of graduate students, and insisted that those who wished could join the adjunct faculty union — thereby, they hoped, precluding any claim to representation by GSOC.

But it was this reclassification, and the university’s explicit use of it as evidence in NLRB filings, that was cited in the 2010 decision to review the GSOC case in Washington. The university had admitted that graduate students performing teaching duties were workers, and had even gone so far as to provide incoming graduate students a pamphlet on inclusion in the adjuncts union.

For their part, the union for adjunct faculty, ACT-UAW, stood in solidarity with the graduate workers, refusing to allow the university to unilaterally include graduate student teachers in the adjunct bargaining unit. GSOC continued to argue that the “community of interest” of graduate student workers — including teachers but also researchers and program assistants — was distinct from that of other adjunct instructors.

GSOC’s legal strategy before the NLRB was complemented by highly visible mobilizations on campus and around the city, boosted by student organizing generated out of Occupy Wall Street and faculty mobilization against the expansion plans. Card checks (a labor-organizing tactic of collecting signed authorization forms demonstrating employees’ desire to join a union) continued to prove that GSOC held a sizable majority of support, as they had consistently over the eight years since the union lost recognition. There was real momentum at NYU for unionization — but we were stuck waiting on Washington.

The right-wing militancy that had overtaken Washington since Obama’s election had serious implications for the NLRB, calling into question the validity of rulings on a variety of cases, and leading to huge delays in rulings. The president’s ability to make recess appointments, as Obama did to the NLRB in January 2012, is still being fought over in the courts, despite the withdrawal of the individuals who were appointed and the approval of a full cohort of replacements.

But in that approval, the NYU administration found another tactic to try to stall a Board decision. The approved appointees included Nancy Schiffer, a former deputy general council for the UAW, and the university filed a petition in October arguing that, as she had been employed by the UAW during the original NYU decision, this affiliation was grounds for her recusal from the case. The union filed a counterargument, citing the university’s own contention that there had been significant changes in classification and compensation in the intervening decade, and pointing to the blatant attempt by the administration to manipulate the composition of the Board.

All the while, representatives of the union had been meeting with the administration in the hopes of convincing NYU to recognize the demonstrated majority support for the union voluntarily, without being forced to do so by the NLRB. In late 2012, the administration, perhaps fearing that a full Board was likely to rule in the union’s favor, made a public offer to the union: recognition in return for dropping the NLRB petition, agreeing to a narrowly defined bargaining unit, and agreeing to a moratorium on organizing research assistants for ten years.

The union rejected that offer as too heavy on concessions, and too restrictive of our right to organize. Our demonstrated majority meant that we didn’t have to back down — the momentum was in our favor, not university administrators’. So the public campaign and negotiations continued.


The following year was a spectacularly difficult one for the administration. The votes of no confidence, the media coverage of NYU compensation scandals, and the Senate investigation of university financial decisions had all been very public losses for Sexton and his vision. The Board of Trustees announced that, despite their continued full support, Sexton would step down after the conclusion of his term in 2016.

Then, in a surprise move just over three weeks ago, the UAW and the administration released a joint statement — they had come to an agreement. The negotiations that had been ongoing for over a year had borne fruit, and the union had won several important concessions from the university from the previous year’s offer: an expanded bargaining unit that would include instructors, program assistants, research assistants in many departments, graduate workers at the Polytechnic Institute, and workers in their sixth and seventh years of the PhD program; no moratorium on future organizing of the hard-science research assistants excluded from the current bargaining unit; and, importantly, a commitment by the university to neutrality, meaning that they agreed not to conduct an anti-union campaign.

In return for recognition, GSOC would withdraw the NLRB petition, and an election would be scheduled immediately. In the absence of anti-union campaigning by the administration, the vote was a landslide, with 98.4 percent voting in favor of the union. For the first time, a private university had recognized a graduate worker union voluntarily.

What will our victory mean for us as workers? NYU graduate students, living and working in the most expensive city in the world, are relatively well-compensated, thanks in large part to the gains we won in 2001. But in the absence of a contract, those gains are precarious. This was made incredibly clear when the university decided to raise our healthcare costs 33 percent last year — and without a recognized union, there was nothing we could do but accept it.

As we enter into contract negotiations, we are fighting to win a number of critical provisions. We’ll propose workplace protections that ensure stability and fairness in how jobs are assigned, so that administrators won’t be able to cancel teaching or research assignments at the last minute without fair compensation. We’ll make sure that the contract recognizes the family needs of our graduate workers, so that we don’t have to choose between caring for our children and doing our research. And we’ll fight for affordable and comprehensive healthcare, so that we won’t have to face paying for dental work rather than paying for food.

What’s more, in direct contradiction of the Brown decision, having a contract will ensure that economic decisions are separated from academic ones, so that our relationships with the professors who supervise us can focus on our scholarship, not our wages. But beyond these specific gains, we’re also fighting to make NYU a better place to study and work for everyone — and the administration has now conceded that the union will do just that.


So why did the administration decide to come to the table with the union after a fifteen year fight with the graduate workers in which John Sexton himself reportedly told one organizer that GSOC was “a virus” that had to be wiped off of campus?

An open letter demonstrating the support of nearly 250 public and union officials —including the incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio — certainly helped. And clearly, the rising opposition to and scrutiny of the Sexton vision was a crucial factor, putting the union in a position of strength with a seriously weakened employer.

But in some ways, the decision is consistent with Sexton’s desire to provide a model in higher education: the administration’s compromise with the union allowed them to take back control of the narrative and reclaim a leadership position, arguing that the agreement will “sustain and enhance NYU’s academic competitiveness.”

With the withdrawal of the NYU petition, the Brown precedent still stands — something that can and must be challenged by other organizing campaigns. This won’t be an easy fight, as we saw over the last decade: the use of the NLRB by the right wing as a political football in an increasingly rancorous partisan game has only increased since the Bush administration.

But it is clear that even without an NLRB decision for NYU, this contract will serve as an important precedent, showing that this sort of agreement can be productive for organizing campaigns of graduate workers and faculty at private universities across the country. Messages of support from other campaigns have poured in, and already, activists involved in similar campaigns elsewhere are looking to our victory for inspiration, with one University of Chicago organizer telling Al Jazeera America that the NYU agreement has “put some options on the table that we haven’t even been able to imagine.”

One important lesson we should take away is this: It is impossible to separate graduate workers’ victory from a broader opposition to John Sexton’s vision for NYU — a vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue-generation and relentless expansion. Our sustained organizing campaign over the last fifteen years has buoyed faculty organizing at NYU; in turn, their fight during the last few years created important conditions for the university’s concessions in our struggle. That solidarity can and should be replicated elsewhere, to ensure that if NYU is to serve as a model in higher education, that model includes a focus on affordability before expansion, a commitment to shared governance, and guarantees of fair labor practices.

Our victory has shown that opposition to the corporatization of higher education can be successful, if students and faculty commit to struggle over the long haul. For our part, NYU grad students will honor the stonecutters’ legacy on our campus — hopefully to lay the building blocks for a more just future for students and higher education workers at NYU and beyond.

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