NYU Graduate students unionize and win improved healthcare and wages, 2013-15

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Time Period:  
4 October
11 March
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
New York City, New York
Location Description: 
New York University
a comprehensive contract including pay raises, better dental and healthcare plans, more childcare allowance, and greater graduate student input in labor decisions

After 8 years of negotiation and organizing, the New York University (NYU) Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) won voluntary recognition from NYU on 26 November 2013, partially in response to a letter signed by 1300 graduate student employees in support of unionization. The NYU administration withheld formal recognition until after 98.4 percent of graduate students voted in favor of the union on 11 December. This made NYU the first private university in the United States to recognize a graduate student union.

In February 2014, the GSOC bargaining committee entered into negotiations with the NYU administration. After the administration’s representatives refused to accede to any of the GSOC’s demands, a delegation of graduate employees delivered a letter with over 1,000 signatures to the NYU representatives on 2 May.

After the GSOC failed to come to a contract agreement with NYU in July 2014, 120 graduate students published an open letter calling on the GSOC to be more transparent. Some of these students formed Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) shortly afterward and launched an internal campaign in 2014 to challenge the union to push for a comprehensive contract with the university that would provide higher wages and better healthcare for workers.

By running on a platform calling for transparency and democratization within the union and successfully mobilizing a large segment of the graduate student body who previously had not voted, AWDU swept the GSOC elections on 17 September 2014. Following the elections, the GSOC called for a comprehensive contract that included pay raises, better dental and healthcare plans, more childcare allowance, and greater graduate student worker input in labor decisions. In contrast, the NYU administration continued to resist all these demands and tried to negotiate a contract based on the wages and benefits NYU had provided prior to unionization.

Once in leadership of the GSOC, AWDU engaged workers in the negotiation and organizing process. They combined conventional union organizing tactics, such as negotiation and relationship-based organizing, with creative direct action, extensive use of social media, and participatory contract negotiation in order to provide all members with an opportunity to participate and take leadership.

Beginning in October, the ADWU organized open bargaining sessions with the NYU administration and directly engaged the public by regularly conducting informational picketing. They conducted bargaining sessions focused on specific issues, such as the need for childcare assistance, the lack of benefits for workers’ families, and the effect of low graduate pay on undergraduates’ education. They targeted the undergraduate college by sending letters to high school guidance counselors and passing out flyers on parents day to publicize their complaints about poor working conditions for NYU graduate students. The ADWU also began a letter writing campaign to NYU President John Sexton. On 17 November, student representatives delivered over 200 letters from graduate students to President Saxton. President Saxton’s staff refused to let the students personally deliver the letters to Saxton.

After several months of organizing and base-building, the ADWU-led GSOC began taking more public action. On 21 November, hundreds of students, staff, faculty and community supporters rallied in order to urge the NYU administration to agree to a contract that included better wages and benefits for workers. NYU undergraduate student and faculty groups including NYU Divest, Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, and Student Labor Action Movement and NYU Students for Justice in Palestine joined, in addition to allies from Columbia, CUNY, and other schools across the city.

After the NYU administration refused to respond or make any concessions, the GSOC held another rally in support of a more generous contract on 2 December, which drew faculty, undergraduates, and supporters from other local campus unions, in addition to GSOC members. The rally included dancing and music by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra and a giant piggy bank-shaped piñata representing NYU’s $399 Million profit the previous year. At the rally the GSOC threatened a strike in the spring if the NYU administration did not make concessions. On 11 December, the union membership reinforced this threat when over 1100 members voted 95% in favor of giving the bargaining committee the authority to initiate a strike if necessary. The GSOC leadership then announced that the graduate workers would strike if NYU did not make concessions by 10 March 2015. On 12 December the GSOC organized a work-in at the NYU library lobby, where they graded students’ papers and exams, distributed flyers, and updated students on the campaign.

In the lead-up to the strike, the GSOC involved undergraduate students and faculty in the campaign. On 5 March 2014 they organized a panel discussion about GSOC’s demands and why they were threatening a strike in collaboration with the International Socialist Organization, the Student Labor Action Movement and NYU Divest. The next day, NYU Provost David McLaughlin sent a campus-wide email criticizing the GSOC’s strike threat. Four hours later, 30 undergraduate students went to Provost McLaughlin’s office, demanding that he retract what they felt was a misleading email. When he refused, 60 students returned on 9 March with an open letter signed by 500 undergraduates in support of the strike threat. By 10 March, over 100 faculty had signed an open letter supporting the GSOC’s demands and calling on NYU to settle in order to avert a strike.

The GSOC also published a detailed schedule of events for the first days of the strike that included picketing times, forums to explain the reasoning behind the strike, and an unspecified action on Friday. Meanwhile, NYU administrators sent two campus-wide emails describing the GSOC’s demands as unreasonable and arguing that the administration’s existing offer was more than satisfactory.

Despite the administration’s public stance, they reopened negotiations with GSOC late in the evening of 10 March. GSOC members and undergraduate supporters lined the hallway as GSOC and the administration negotiated. At 1:30 am on 11 March, the GSOC and NYU negotiators reached an agreement and the GSOC cancelled the strike.

The agreement guaranteed minimum annual raises, dramatically improved and made less expensive healthcare and dental coverage, a family health care fund, a tax deductible child care fund, and formal labor-management committees to resolve future labor disputes and ensure input from graduate students in future labor policy.

Research Notes

Occupy Wall Street connected progressive graduate students with one another and with undergraduates.(1) The ADWU-led GSOC campaign emboldened graduate labor organizers at other New York Universities such as Columbia and the New School.(2)

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Raheja, Natasha. 2014. “NYU Grad Union Needs a Contract Campaign, Not Just a Contract.” Retrieved March 29, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150319120015/http://labornotes.org/blogs/2014/08/nyu-grad-union-needs-contract-campaign-not-just-contract).

Vlachou, Marita. 2015. “Undergraduates Protest University’s GSOC Negotiations.” NYU News. Retrieved March 29, 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150329205529/http://www.nyunews.com/2015/03/06/undergraduates-protest-universitys-gsoc-negotiations/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Stephen O'Hanlon, 29/03/2015