University News

Unionization discussion reemerges at grad schools

NYU vote for re-unionization sparks conversation, follow-up unlikely on College Hill

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Graduate students at New York University voted last month to become the only graduate assistants at an American private university to be represented by a union, another development in a continuing debate about the merits of unionization in graduate education. But while graduate students at Brown said the unionization issue has garnered some interest on campus, others said they do not expect NYU students’ action to spark unionization efforts on College Hill.

Graduate assistants at NYU voted Dec. 10-11 to unionize by a margin of 620 to 10.

“We are really excited to sign a contract,” said Matt Canfield, an NYU doctoral student and member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. The committee is affiliated with United Automobile Workers, a national union that represents  workers in higher education across the country.

Now that the graduate students have formed a union, Canfield expects NYU to reach fair agreements, he said. “We are entering with the expectation of bargaining with good faith.”

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in a 2004 case brought by Brown teaching assistants seeking to unionize that graduate students were not employees and therefore lacked collective bargaining rights. The 2004 decision led to widespread discouragement among graduate students hoping to unionize at private universities, Canfield said. Unionization organizing committees survived, but many do not have “the resources or the vision to actually push for a collective bargaining contract,” he added.

Some graduate students can feel that “nothing is safe unless there is a contract” and feel unionization is necessary to advocate for their positions, Canfield said.

Rising health care costs also inspired students to unionize, Canfield said. The NYU rate for adding dependents onto a health insurance plan — $6,660 annually for a spouse or domestic partner, according to NYU Student Health Center statistics — was an unpopular policy among graduate students with families, he added. The annual cost for covering a dependent spouse or domestic partner at Brown — $2,490 — is less than half NYU’s rate, according to data from the Office of Insurance and Risk.

The newly unionized NYU students plan to elect a bargaining committee and survey graduate students on their priorities next month, Canfield said, adding that the union hopes to negotiate a contract with NYU by the end of the summer.

It is difficult to say how NYU graduate students’ unionization will affect graduate students at other private universities because “the conditions of every school differ,” Canfield said. But he said he hopes that “graduate employees at other universities look to NYU as an example and a leader for organizing and forming collective bargaining units.”


Uniting at universities

Three years ago, many Graduate Student Council members at Brown did not express interest in unionizing, The Herald reported in 2011.

Continued disinterest in unionization could be linked to general satisfaction with campus life, said Erica Mena-Landry GS, a literary arts doctoral student. “On the whole, graduate students are treated well at Brown without needing the lobbying power of a union, but that doesn’t mean a union couldn’t be valued for a lot of other reasons,” she said. A union could help graduate students receive fair compensation and feel their work is valued through a contract, she said.

Many Brown graduate students “have a pretty good idea of what’s going on” at NYU, said Steve Zins GS, president of the Graduate Student Council. “We are paying close attention to the situation.” Graduate students have not reached a consensus on whether to push for unionization, but GSC leaders hope to provide “the space for that conversation to happen,” he added.

Organizers at the University of Chicago are also trying to unionize in response to benefit cutbacks, said Molly Cunningham, a UChicago doctoral student and organizer of Graduate Students United. GSU is not recognized by UChicago as a union, but the group’s campaigns have met with success, including a 50 percent increase in teaching pay and a scholarship program for child care, she said. Still, forming a graduate assistant union, either by gaining recognition from the NLRB or by negotiating with UChicago, is “definitely going to require a lot of work” because graduate students do not share full awareness of the issues at stake, Cunningham added.


State of the unionization

Many public universities across the country have unionized graduate assistants. While completing a graduate degree program at the University of Iowa, Mena-Landry was a member of a union that helped secure generous benefits for students, she said. “I received the best health care I will probably ever have,” Mena-Landry said.

A 2013 study of public universities in the United States, conducted by Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations Review, found that, on average, unionized graduate students reported “higher levels of personal and professional support.”

But some administrators dispute the notion that unionization is the key to graduate students’ satisfaction.

“Brown is distinctive from public universities, and many graduate students want to be here,” said Peter Weber, dean of the Graduate School. “You can see that from the application pool.”

Some graduate students said public and private universities foster different environments for graduate education. At public universities, “there are different rules and regulations since you get state funding,” Zins said.

“Private schools are not as dependent on graduate student labor,” Cunningham said.

But larger private universities, such as NYU, are more reliant on graduate students for teaching labor, Canfield said.


Profs and cons 

Weber said he believes unionization runs contrary to the University’s mission statement. The Grad School is based on “a partnership of students and teachers,” he said. “Unionization is not consistent with thinking of students as partners.”

Some graduate students disagreed.  “The graduate student union (at Iowa) actually strengthened the relationship with my adviser, because we didn’t have to worry about the technical stuff” since a union-negotiated contract allows students to gain advocates who do not affect their ability to graduate, Mena-Landry said.

GSC members highlighted their meetings as an opportunity to engage in discussions about unionization, but some graduate students said they felt their community remains disconnected.

“I don’t have access to students in other programs. We do have a graduate student bar, but I didn’t know the Graduate Student Council existed,” Mena-Landry said, adding that a union could provide a better social platform for bringing together graduate students.