The news arrived the day before Thanksgiving—most students probably missed it, focused on getting home for the holiday. In an email to the NYU community, University President John Sexton made an announcement that many had been waiting eight years to receive: the administration had reached an agreement with the United Auto Workers to hold an election to determine if a majority of graduate employees wished to be represented by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW and Scientists and Engineers Together/UAW (GSOC/UAW and SET/UAW). The turnaround was rapid: the American Arbitration Association oversaw the election two weeks later, on December 10 and 11. The results arrived via email less than two hours after the polls closed: 620 votes for the union, 10 against it. This makes NYU the only private university in the country with a recognized graduate employee union.

NYU has held this title once before. GSOC began organizing in 1998, and in 2002, using a National Labor Relations Board decision stating that NYU graduate employees were, in fact, workers. Consequently, GSOC became the first graduate employee union to negotiate a contract at a private university, providing teaching assistants with wage increases and improved working conditions. Two years later, graduate employees at Brown University attempted to follow NYU’s lead, but the NLRB, which then had a Republican majority due to George W. Bush’s appointments, ruled that graduate employees were primarily students, not workers, and therefore did not have collective bargaining rights.

Using that ruling as precedent, the NYU administration refused to negotiate a new contract when the original expired in 2005. In response, GSOC voted to strike with 85 percent of members approving the action. Sexton, facing pressure from presidents of other private universities, who feared seeing similar situations unravel at their own schools, aggressively crushed the union. With the help of then-Vice-President Jack Lew—now Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury—he led a disinformation campaign through public remarks that aimed to disassociate the union contract from the benefits graduate employees had received during the contract years, and he made vague threats of consequences that filtered down from the administration to department heads to graduate employees, eventually firing a handful of striking students. That decision divided the NYU community and has been cited as the cause of faculty organizing against Sexton, which led to a series of no-confidence votes last spring.

Despite not being recognized by the university, GSOC continued to organize graduate employees after the strike, choosing to wait for a more friendly NLRB that would take its side. In the meantime, the union persistently reached out to new graduate employees and maintained majority support in the post-contract years. Additionally, it worked on expanding its membership to cover research assistants as well as teaching assistants and eventually created SET (Scientists and Engineers Together) in May 2011 to represent graduate employees at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn.

The process was further complicated in 2009, when NYU introduced a new financial aid reform for graduate students, Financial Aid Reform 4. FAR 4 conceded that teaching assistants were workers, but said that their teaching work was optional and completely separate from their role as students. As a result, they were eligible to join the adjunct union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, if they chose to teach—a move that many viewed as a way to preempt a graduate employee union. By doing this, NYU inadvertantly dismantled its own argument against GSOC: the university agreed that the work done by graduate employees is actually work.

Obama’s election in 2008 signaled the possibility of a change in the composition of the NLRB, and in June 2012 the Board voted 3-1 to revisit the Brown decision and invited comments from all sides. The process stalled, however, because of discrepancies over the legality of Obama’s recess appointments, and the NLRB did not have a full five members at any point between January 2008 and July 2013. On July 30, however, the Senate confirmed Obama’s five nominees, giving GSOC hope that the Board would soon vote on its petition to reverse the Brown decision from 2004.

Then, in an unanticipated move, the NYU administration reached out to the UAW last fall with an offer to hold an election without the NLRB’s involvement. In an October 4 email to Julie Kushner, the director of UAW Region 9A, NYU Director of Labor Relations Terrance Nolan wrote,

NYU is prepared to proceed with an election to determine if fully-funded graduate students who have chosen to take on teaching duties or other duties that formerly fell under the category of graduate assistantships (GAs) wish to form a separate collective bargaining unit represented by the UAW. And if those graduate students do vote in favor of unionization

We are prepared to proceed immediately to bargaining.

We are making this offer in advance of any decision from the National Labor Relations Board, and we will agree—if you will—to withdraw the proceedings involving the UAW and both NYU and Polytechnic Institute of NYU currently pending before the Board. This willalso avoid having the NLRB, or the courts, having to address the University’s legitimate legal concerns.

In the deal agreed upon by the two parties, NYU would remain neutral and the eligible graduate employees—1,247 graduate, research, and teaching assistants—would vote “without influence or campaigning by the University administration.” In response, GSOC would withdraw its NLRB petition.

While some faculty members and graduate employees saw this as a way for Sexton to regain control of the narrative after a year of bad publicity and plummeting on-campus support, NYU Vice-President for Public Affairs John Beckman argued that this arrangement benefitted all sides:

While I hesitate to speak for the UAW, I think both sides saw there was a lot benefit to coming together around a joint decision—it sped up what might have been a long NLRB process, it allowed NYU to address the union’s concerns about neutrality during the run-up to the election, it allowed our concerns about the inclusion of research assistants to be addressed, and it held the promise of each side coming to terms with the other in a more productive and congenial manner.

But although this deal was beneficial to both NYU and GSOC, it also served an additional purpose for the administration: eliminating the NLRB from the process. The NLRB would have eventually ruled on GSOC’s petition, and most believed that it would have sided with the union, setting a new legal precedent for graduate employee unions nationwide. By preempting the NLRB’s decision, NYU was attempting to prevent GSOC’s eventual win from spreading momentum to other schools.

Despite this twist and the short notice, GSOC was prepared for the election, and organizers were well aware of the importance of their successful campaign. At NYU, graduate employees are fairly well paid, thanks in large part to gains made under the 2002 contract, but those gains have become precarious after eight years without a contract. Equally important, the administration has cut back the healthcare benefits that were achieved with the first contract, ceasing to pay premiums and raising costs by 33 percent last year. Last May, organizers delivered a petition with over 1,000 signatures to the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, asking her to advocate on behalf of their healthcare demands. A new contract will give graduate employees an official means of fighting to regain those benefits.

There is also a more intangible need for a graduate employee union: the acquisition of autonomy, and dignity, on the job. Without formal recognition, graduate employees are easily exploited, working uncalculated hours preparing for classes and grading papers, and their relationships with professors are complicated, blurring the lines between employer/employee and teacher/student. It is this unique position—being both workers and students—that made graduate employees refuse entrance into the adjunct union and instead continue to work towards winning a contract that would represent their distinct interests. At a university such as NYU, where the administration views the prestige gained from the brand name to be payment in itself, acquiring formal workplace rights is imperative to maintaining respect and recognition for the role graduate employees have played and continue to play in building that prestigious name.

The effects of the December election and the upcoming contract negotiations will be felt across NYU, and they will reach beyond GSOC, to other private universities with active graduate employee conflicts. “There was some worry in the original part of these negotiations that the loss of the NLRB—that withdrawing the NLRB petition—might be seen as a kind of defeat, but all we’ve gotten are messages of solidarity from other universities,” says Christy Thornton, a PhD candidate and GSOC organizer.

Graduate employees at public universities have long been granted that right, but private schools have lagged behind, often struggling against anti-union administrations in addition to being reliant on the shifting internal politics of the NLRB. Now, however, the recent NYU election and the administration’s agreement to remain neutral and honor the results are showing graduate employee unions at other private universities that sustained organizing pays off and that they do not need to wait for the NLRB to act to do so themselves.

“It’s an incredible precedent and should open a way for campaigns across the country to win,” says Aaron Greenberg, a PhD candidate at Yale and the chair of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which has been organizing since 1991. “The results demonstrate what we all know: graduate student employees want a union and need a fair process to express that.” At the University of Chicago, Graduate Students United, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, is looking at the recent events at NYU as a model for its own organizing. “The NLRB, I think, would be the best way to ensure that graduate employees have a say in the terms of their employment, but short of that, neutrality agreements constitute a very powerful precedent,” said Andrew Yale, a PhD student and GSU organizer. “There are more options on the table now and it’s just up to members of GSU, in coordination with the larger unions with which we’re affiliated, to figure out what is the best organizing strategy going forward that will allow us to have a real say in the terms of our employment.”

In the end, it was organizing that allowed GSOC to win its election with 98.4 percent of the vote on such short notice. It wasn’t two weeks but rather almost two decades of organizing that brought about those decisive results. Standing outside of the NYU building where the vote was being held on December 10, graduate employees proudly displayed their “I voted” stickers, held up banners and signs, and posed for photos. Online, former organizers posted photos of themselves wearing old GSOC T-shirts, wrote messages of solidarity, and celebrated alongside current GSOC members, who were well aware of the role past organizers played in present events.

For organizers at other universities, the importance of GSOC’s long history did not go unnoticed. “It’s worth remembering that graduate students at NYU are the only graduate students in the private sector who have ever had a union contract,” says Greenberg. “They have experienced life with a contract and life without one. When given the choice they decided, overwhelmingly, that they wanted their union back.”

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