Volume 75, Number 7 | July 6 - 12, 2005

N.Y.U. preparing for grad students walkout in fall

By Johanna Petersson

After the New York University administration announced a preliminary decision on June 15 not to recognize the school’s graduate teaching assistants union, it seems both sides are willing to take the fight to the fall semester.

Maida Rosenstein, president of United Auto Workers 2010 of which the graduate students union is a part, said: “All the graduate students I have spoken to are angry and willing to fight. Out of a total of 1,000 members, 800 signed a letter this spring voicing their support.”

When asked if the graduate students were planning a strike in the fall, Rosenstein hinted the union might go on strike. “We are planning to take action in the fall,” she said. “Right now, everything is on the table.”

Known as graduate teaching assistants, or G.A.’s, those graduate students who teach courses and grade papers receive free tuition, a stipend and health insurance. The university depends heavily on the 1,000 G.A.’s and without their contribution would be hard pressed to conduct classes as usual.

John Beckman, N.Y.U.’s spokesperson, said he doesn’t think university’s withdrawing its recognition of the union will in any way affect the image of N.Y.U., but admits they are expecting disruptions in the fall.

“Obviously, we are aware of the prospect of the fall, and any disruption that might take place and we will take the appropriate action,” Beckman said. “What that might be, we are not prepared to say at this point.”

After the very public conflict during the spring, the university’s administration announced on June 15 that they had made a preliminary decision not to renew the graduate students’ union contract when it expires Aug. 31. Beckman said the university is fundamentally against collective bargaining and that recent grievances put forward by the graduate students’ union violated their 2002 contract, which N.Y.U. says gives the university the right to decide who should teach their classes. The graduate students union subsequently offering to revoke any grievances that N.Y.U. found problematic did not change N.Y.U.’s position to withdraw its recognition of the union.

“Our graduate students are not employed; this is an assistanceship which allows them to pursue their academics,” Beckman said. “The United Auto Workers say these grievance procedures are nothing, but at the same time they say that they would like to work with us to solve the problem.”

Last Friday, outside Bobst Library during an informal survey, students expressed mixed feelings on the issue. Evan Daniel, a New School University graduate student who works as an archivist at Bobst Library, said he and many with him at the New School support the efforts of the N.Y.U. graduate students’ union. “We are solidly behind their struggle,” said Daniel.

Adam Schafenberg, also an archivist at the library, who will begin his graduate studies in global studies at N.Y.U. in the fall, is also supporting the union. At the cost of $25,000 a year, he just got his B.A. from the university and considers the school far too corporate in its outlook.

“I am all for that they [the graduate students] should be able to unionize and make more money,” he said. “The university doesn’t need to make more money, it is already one of the largest landowners in the city.”

Christian, a Ph.D. student in French who also works as a teaching assistant, is a member of the graduate students union, but said he is against unions in general.

“It is a good thing that they’re not recognizing the union anymore,” he said. “They were asking for more and more money, but the businesses around campus realize that people have more money and so they increase their prices.” But he also said: “On a selfish note, I only glanced at the e-mail from the administration but I won’t mind getting $1,000 more in benefits.”

Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board, reversing its previous ruling of only a few years earlier, ruled that graduate students at universities do not have to be recognized as employees, leaving it optional for universities to negotiate with a graduate students union. After deciding not to bargain with the graduate students union, N.Y.U. has promised to increase their benefits package. Beckman said fears that they will stop taking care of their graduate students are overstated.

“N.Y.U. is a research university,” he noted. “As a doctoral university we must have graduate students. No research institution can function without them. It is not as if we can offshore the work.… If we don’t treat them well the best of our graduate students will go somewhere else.”

But U.A.W.’s Rosenstein thinks differently.

“Based on N.Y.U.’s conduct in the past, they can make all the promises they want. But without a union they don’t have to own up to them,” she said. “Deprived of a union, we feel that people’s conditions will worsen, decreasing work conditions for everyone working at the university. It erodes the academic workers, adjunct professors and full-time professors as well,” Rosenstein added. “It also erodes academic freedom, leading to insecurity with no official position to meet with the administration as equals. This just goes to show the corporate mentality of the university. We have negotiated with these guys, we know how difficult they sometimes find it to reprioritize funds.”

The graduate students union is also disappointed that the administration has decided to have a town hall style meeting on the issue on July 12 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Kimmel Center at Washington Square South and LaGuardia Pl.

“This is a time of the year that many graduate students are out of town and will be unavailable to attend, but we have tried to encourage as many of our students as possible to attend,” said Rosenstein. They’d prefer if the meeting was in the fall.

N.Y.U.’s Beckman said they wanted to have the town hall meeting after the July 4 holiday so that as many people as possible would be in town and also because they didn’t want to delay the decision any further.

The university will make its final decision on July 15 to formally end its recognition of the union. The university is recommending that a new committee be formed to represent the interests of the graduate teaching assistants.

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