Marching Through the Institutions

Academic life moves slowly. The university system is always changing, but the current is sluggish enough that it’s easy to imagine the institution is fixed in some permanent form. Then, sometimes, things happen fast.

On NYU and the future of graduate student unionism

2005 NYU strike. Image by Robyn Lee via flickr.

Academic life moves slowly. The university system is always changing, but the current is sluggish enough that it’s easy to imagine the institution is fixed in some permanent form. Then, sometimes, things happen fast. The familiar campus dramas of the 1960s and 1970s erupted from longer-running, slower-moving cold war dynamics: the GI Bill and the social enfranchisement of the working class—which brought the children of immigrants and factory workers onto university campuses in the 1950s and 1960s and then African-Americans and women in the 1960s and 1970s; the influx of military-industrial and corporate dollars and the defense of conservative culture and politics by university leadership; and the confrontation between these two, of which today’s university is in large part the result.

Through it all, though, the American university has clung to the image of the old craft-production model of academic work, where apprentices (grad students) learn from master craftsmen (the tenured)—even as the rising use of adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate teachers has quietly reshaped the world of academic work. This slow-moving transformation beneath the surface of a system trying to keep up appearances is making a public conversation about the state of intellectual life and work unavoidable. The question is under what kind of circumstances such a conversation happens, and how much academics themselves determine its meaning. After years of being told that the job market is about to turn around, that prosperity is around the corner if we wait our turn, when will we insist that now is our moment?

The victory in the fight for a union for graduate students at New York University, secured on March 11 when NYU agreed to a contract, is the beginning of such an event—or at least, it could be. For this victory to appear as the signal of a broader shift, though, we have to keep winning.

The ups and downs of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) have indicated the fortunes of higher education at large for some time now; more than that, GSOC has helped to make academic history. It stands to reason. NYU embodies in a pronounced form many of the trends that academics lament: growing administration, ballooning student debt, declining faculty governance, expanding adjunct hiring, and global expansion into authoritarian countries.

GSOC’s rise at NYU in the late 1990s and early 2000s thus triggered a wave of organizing across the elite private institutions. When the NYU administration crushed the union in 2005 with a legal assist from George W. Bush appointees at the National Labor Relations Board, which held that graduate students were not entitled to the Wagner Act organizing rights of other kinds of employees, what followed was the disintegration of organizing campaigns on almost every campus. The only private-sector graduate student organizations to survive this moment were GSOC and our union, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, at Yale. (GESO squeaked through thanks to the steadfast support of the five thousand other union members on campus, who work in service, maintenance, clerical, and technical jobs, and are all consolidated in the union UNITE HERE.) The defeat of the most significant challengers to administration’s total authority on campus at America’s leading institutions in turn accelerated the current, much-lamented crisis of higher education. Tuition increases have been unchecked, and the deprofessionalization of teaching proceeded. Where faculty stood up—sometimes quite determinedly, as they did at NYU when they voted no confidence in the university’s president, John Sexton, in 2013—they still tended to lack the power that comes with workplace organization.

GSOC, though, has survived a union-busting effort and waged an epic decade-long campaign to regain the recognition the union briefly enjoyed in the early 2000s. In the fall of 2013, NYU finally agreed to an election procedure for the graduate students. With the protection of employer neutrality, 98 percent voted for the union. In subsequent negotiations, however, GSOC found that NYU was aiming to call the current graduate student financial package a “contract,” and seemed to have little intention of making any material concessions in bargaining.

Faced with bad-faith negotiations, GSOC remobilized its members, and bared some teeth in its bargaining. At 1 AM on March 11—an hour past the strike deadline set by the union—the university caved. GSOC’s members now enjoy the only contractual protections of any graduate students in the private sector: a grievance procedure; better pay for teaching assistants than anywhere else in the industry, reaching as high as $36,600; doubling of pay for research assistants at NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn, who’d been earning a starvation-level hourly wage of $10; recommitment of the institution to paying at least 90 percent of health care coverage (after jacking up health care costs for graduate students in the non-union period); and hundreds of thousands of NYU’s dollars into a child care fund over the life of the contract.

The last time GSOC won a contract, in 2001, it created a groundswell of organizing across American campuses. That’s happening again. Just two or three years ago, NYU, Yale, and the University of Chicago were the only private campuses with active union campaigns—none in striking distance of recognition. Today, new campaigns have taken shape at a half-dozen more universities. At Columbia and Yale, organizers spurred on by GSOC’s landslide election in December 2013 signed up majorities of graduate students in 2014. While GESO is pressing Yale for voluntary recognition, similar to the strategy at NYU, the union at Columbia has petitioned the Obama-appointed NLRB to revisit the Bush administration ruling; last week the NLRB agreed to review the case.


Still, graduate student unionism in the private sector has never successfully broken the cordon sanitaire around NYU. Administrators at Yale and Columbia are surely hoping that GSOC’s determination and stamina are anomalies related to the high cost of living in the city or some characteristic of NYU as an institution. Organizers at other campuses know otherwise: it might be easier to rally support against an administration as widely unpopular as the one at NYU, but the dynamics are not fundamentally different across campuses.

The question, though, is whether ordinary graduate students feel the same. Your average American, at this point, has had very little experience of collective action of any kind, and even less of unions in any kind of positive or dynamic role. This goes doubly for graduate students, who tend not to come from social backgrounds where collective action is the norm. Grad students, in our experience, are intrigued by the idea of a union, and certainly want more of a say than they have currently—enough so that, with the right conversation, they will join an organization or sign a petition. But the idea of a fight makes them nervous. Understandably: graduate students have gotten where they are by winning approval from academic authority figures—the same people whom, they fear, they stand to upset by fighting.

Yet once graduate students come to campus, they slowly discover something unnerving: while a difficult advisor can make life miserable, a supportive one can’t really promise security, success, or happiness. Economic forces in the hands of university administrators, rather than scholarly achievements in the hands of academics, determine our prospects. Yale likes to cite historian George Pierson’s proclamation that Yale is “at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” But for many graduate students, the experience is profoundly isolating. Upon arriving in grad school to train for a profession in an institution that appears to be crumbling around us, the only option at first seems to be to work harder, to spend more time in the library or the lab, alone.

And isolation breeds further isolation. There’s simply little in most people’s immediate experience to validate the organizer’s claim that we’d all do better sticking together. People worry: What if we anger the administration? Might we lose more in retribution than we regain in collective action? Worse, what if we upset the faculty? It’s nobody’s intention, but it’s an obvious fear for grad students counting on letters of recommendation from supportive advisers for career advancement. And it’s a perceptive one: as pro-union majorities have materialized on their campuses, the Columbia and Yale administrations have begun caricaturing the campaigns as standing in opposition to the faculty. This spring, Yale’s spokesman told the New York Times, “Yale believes that graduate students are students, not employees. Further, we do not believe it is in the best interests of the students, the faculty or the educational process to change the teacher-student relationship to a manager-employee relationship.” Administrators know just where grad students are most fearful and sensitive; if they poke the right spot, they can turn the senior and junior halves of the academic community against each other, and laugh all the way to the bank.

These anxieties won’t go away on their own. They’re inherent to this kind of social movement, and the place they come from is real. The work of organizing is to build relationships of solidarity that are stronger than these scattering fears—and that will hold firm in the face of threats. To an astonishing degree, academic workers have been willing to leap together into the unknown. But the significance of the breakthrough at NYU is that it provides a visible place to land—far away, perhaps, but indisputably real.

And NYU shows that there will be people waiting for us when we get there. The GSOC victory is a reminder to our excited but apprehensive colleagues and comrades that the decision to unionize isn’t a preposterous pipe dream or a plot schemed up by trouble-making malcontents. Other people want the same things we do—decent pay, dental, child care—and they’re getting them. It’s hard to overestimate how much that matters: our success depends entirely on whether grad students believe that we deserve to be treated better, or whether the university can convince us that we should be grateful for whatever we’re given.

Yale hopes that ignoring us will be enough to make us go away, that eventually we’ll revert to our default state of self-doubt. Last April, we delivered a petition bearing the signatures of a majority of graduate students to Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, calling upon Yale to negotiate with GESO. Hundreds of grad students showed up in the pouring rain to demand a union outside Salovey’s office. Months later, a newly installed dean said in response, “I’m not aware of that petition. I heard something happened over there.” This October, we delivered a photo petition with the images of an even larger majority of grad students, each paired with an ally from one of Yale’s other unions or the New Haven community. Almost two thousand union supporters marched through the streets around central campus; the governor, mayor, congressperson, and city alders spoke in support of GESO. A Yale spokesman responded by saying, “The University has never believed that it would be in the best interest of the University or the students themselves to have a union and change the relationships of the Yale faculty to these graduate students.” (Sound familiar?) Yale can keep declining comment. But NYU makes it clear that Yale isn’t ignoring us because we’re too inconsequential to merit attention—they’re ignoring us because they’re scared.

There’s still plenty of bleak news in the academic world. Yet the evidence of success for academics who organize is piling up. Adjunct organizing campaigns have caught fire in a way that has not happened in any sector of the economy for years, bringing thousands of adjunct professors under the protections of union contracts in a few short years. SEIU, which is behind this campaign, is now raising the stakes by seeking $15,000 per course for adjuncts—an audacious demand that may serve to ignite the imaginations of some of academia’s most downtrodden and exploited people.

Conversations about the union alternate in subject matter between bread-and-butter concerns and more general disquiet about the future of the university, which in any case aren’t so easily separated—faculty diversity depends on access to child care, quality research requires guaranteed funding, the life of the mind demands mental health care. But more than anything else, grad students tell us they want a say. It’s hardly surprising that the people who plan to spend their lives the academy care enormously about its future. We see the direction that our universities are going, and we want to do more than just wait for the next edict to come down. Yale, for example, recently announced plans to expand its undergraduate population by 15 percent without hiring more faculty or graduate teachers. For grad students and faculty alike, this means more work, bigger classes, less time with students and for our own research. What if grad students and faculty—particularly adjuncts and junior faculty, whose positions are sometimes even more insecure than those of grad students—together sought to fight the casualization and cutbacks that threaten our work? What could we do with more control over our workplace? It’s this prospect that makes university administrations most nervous. Over the years, they’ve made significant material concessions to grad student organizing without offering union recognition itself.

Over the coming several years, we should expect elite institutions to raise stipends and improve benefits in response to the competitive pressure now exerted on the market by institutions making concessions to their unions. NYU now pays TAs better than anywhere else; Yale is now the only institution, to our knowledge, which guarantees six years of full funding in the humanities and social sciences. Collective action is raising the wage floor beneath us.

But more immediately, GSOC’s advance has given a charge to the moment. There is a jolt of confidence that comes from an initial encounter with one’s own potential power, previously only tentatively imagined. This should not be underestimated. What will happen when graduate students realize they don’t have to submit as their life’s work becomes a scramble for the next few months of funding or teaching? What will happen when private sector graduate student unionism finally breaks out of Greenwich Village? We cannot wait to find out.

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