After weeks of hearings, graduate students at New York University are awaiting a decision from the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether they will be allowed to form a graduate student union.
“It’s really just a waiting game,” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a doctoral student at NYU and an organizer for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. “We want the legal process to move as quick as possible, and NYU wants the exact opposite. They want to waste time and money.”
In 2004, graduate students at Brown attempted to unionize, but the NLRB ruled that they are not employees and therefore cannot establish a union. Graduate students at NYU went on strike in 2005 to protest the ruling, which set a precedent for other private universities. Though part of the United Auto Workers — a labor union which represents workers in several different industries — from 2002 to 2005, their contract was not renewed when it expired that year.
NYU students began protesting again in April 2010, and the NLRB, now controlled by Democrats, allowed for a new hearing on graduate student rights Oct. 25. The board ruled that the 2004 Brown case can no longer be used as a precedent to determine labor policy. Since October, the NYU administration and the union have been involved in hearings before the NLRB. Cohen said a decision will likely be announced within the next two or three months.
“We’re really confident that we’re going to get a positive ruling,” he said. “We think the law is on our side.” Cohen said graduate students at NYU want to unionize to improve their terms of work — including better pay, health insurance, childcare, safety in labs and a proper grievance procedure for working conditions.
John Freudenthal, a doctoral student at NYU and an organizer for the campaign, said he hoped to “eliminate the ridiculous precedent set by the previous NLRB.”
“Graduate students are a class of low-paid, highly skilled workers that have been historically taken advantage of,” he said. “Just because we want an education doesn’t mean our labor should be exploited.”
“We think we’re workers and we have a right. NYU disagrees,” Cohen said. He said he did not understand why the university opposes unionization, as the legal process costs money and is bad for their image as “a really progressive university.”
“It has to do with power,” Cohen said. “When an organization has power, it doesn’t want to give it out. For us, it’s unfair and problematic.”
Standing its ground
“We think the university’s position is pretty straightforward and logical,” John Beckman, vice president for public affairs at NYU, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. He wrote students who are accepted in doctoral positions at NYU are fully funded and that teaching and research assistantship responsibilities were “part of their education as they prepared for professional life.”
Graduate students were accepted for their academic promise, not for their job skills as employees, he said. Because students considered assistantships to be work, they have been eliminated in favor of fellowship semesters, leaving students nothing to bargain over, he wrote. Adjuncts are already represented by the United Auto Workers and a second union is not needed, he added.
“Their desire to be unionized does not make sense,” Beckman wrote. “Even if one thought the NLRB was correct in the NYU case and wrong in the Brown case, the facts and circumstances have changed dramatically.”
Beckman wrote that NYU has worked to improve financial aid, explaining that financial aid packages continue to include a stipend of over $20,000, full tuition scholarships and free health insurance premiums.
Cohen said students from other private universities have been in contact with him and are waiting to see the “legal background” before they proceeded to campaign for unions at their universities.
“The landscape of education depends on graduate student labor,” Cohen said.
Not a parallel
“We’re watching the (NYU) hearings and wondering what will come out of them,” said Ryan Hartigan GS, a doctoral student and president of the Brown Graduate Student Council. He said there has been no motion to actively support the option to unionize at Brown, and it is important to draw a distinction between unionization and collective bargaining. He is open to the idea of establishing a “body of some form” — not necessarily a union — that allows for “clarity and transparency,” he said.
Beverly Ledbetter, vice president and general counsel, said the “situations are different” for Brown and NYU, which makes it difficult to speculate what implications the NLRB decision for NYU would have for Brown.
“The conditions vary so much on each campus,” said Kenneth Chay, professor of economics, who taught a class last semester on the economics of labor and population.
While he found the previous NLRB ruling fair for students at medical, law or business schools, Chay said the situation is different for other graduate and doctoral students. After the first two years of graduate school when students begin dissertations, half of their time is spent as research or teaching assistants and they are no longer “typical students,” he said.
Chay previously taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where he said departments in the sciences and economics gave their graduate students “good deals” while students in the humanities had a lot more incentive to unionize. “At Brown, they all seem to have decent deals,” he said, adding that the medical benefits for graduate students are “as good as you can get.”
A union at Brown “would only be successful if students found salaries lower here than at comparable institutions,” Chay said. He said he does not get the sense students felt that way.
The administration is “doing fantastic work” and is “readily available to discuss our concerns,” Hartigan said.
The University was committed to its graduate students, having increased the doctoral-student stipend from $14,000 in 2002-03 to $19,500 this year, an increase of 39 percent, as part of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, Peter Weber P’12, dean of the graduate school wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. He added that the Corporation will further increase this stipend to $20,500 for the 2011-12 academic year.
For decades, graduate students at private universities have been subject to federal law prohibiting unionization, Ledbetter said. She added that the services graduate students offer still constitute a form of study, and without “intense mentoring, research and shepherding, there would be no such thing as a graduate program.”
“In 2004, Brown argued that unionizing graduate students would have a deleterious effect on the academic relationship between faculty and graduate students,” Weber wrote. The NLRB “ruled that graduate teaching assistants, research assistants and proctors are students — not employees. … Brown University continues to support the 2004 decision and its findings.”
Stefanie Sevcik GS, a doctoral student and former officer of the Graduate Student Council, called the lack of a union “scary.” It means “the administration has a lot of control over us in terms of teaching workload and pay,” she said. She said she hopes the NYU graduate students are successful, as it would give Brown students more leverage. “If NYU ends up having a union and are able to do something useful and productive with it, there would be more motivation for Brown students to want to unionize,” she said.
But at previous council meetings, the topic was controversial — most members did not see the point of unionizing. Most students were “paranoid about funding” and “too busy” to do something about it, said Stephen Chambers, a doctoral student and a representative to the council.
Unionization is “a really good idea theoretically, but
I’m not sure that it’s something that Brown will do in the near future,” Sevcik said. “Ivy League graduate students have a pretty nice deal — we have jobs that other graduate students in the country would really love to have.”
The decision to push for a union “depends on the particular group of people at any time,” Chambers said. Some graduate students work for a few years prior to returning to school. It is strange to come back and be classified as students while still earning wages, he said.
“Graduate schools are aware that they have to be competitive,” Chambers said, adding that Brown has recently increased its stipends and dialogue on funding.
If Brown graduate students were to form a union, he would push for better childcare and a formalized contract, he said, though he did not have a “whole lot of complaints.” He said he “would be surprised” if Brown graduate students did push to unionize. In light of the current job market, “people are just relieved to be here.”