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Graduate assistants strike to force NYU to reenter negotiations with union

Bearing signs such as "Nerds on strike" and "Honk if you support labor," New York University graduate assistants and their supporters have spent the last week striking against the university's refusal to recognize or bargain with their union. The strikers, who have picketed numerous campus locations, have demanded the time and attention of NYU's student body, displacing classes to bars, churches and even New Jersey.

The strike began Nov. 9 with a day-long rally in front of NYU's Bobst Library. Since then, there have been five picket lines with about 30 protesters each around NYU's Greenwich Village campus at different periods every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on Fridays until lunchtime, according to the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper.

Graduate assistants - NYU's term for graduate students who work - who are members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee will fill five-hour strike shifts that total between 15 and 20 hours per week, an amount equal to the time they spend working at NYU.

According to NYU's Web site, the university employs about 1,000 graduate assistants in any given semester.

In 2000, NYU became the only private university in the country to have a union represent its graduate students, when it first agreed to recognize graduate teaching assistants as employees. United Auto Workers Local 2110 represented NYU's graduate students until August 2005 and represents about 30,000 graduate student workers across the country, according to Philip Wheeler, director of the UAW region that includes New York.

NYU's decision to have a union represent graduate students was the result of a ruling made by the then-Democrat-controlled National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton administration. The ruling stated that graduate teaching and research assistants should be able to unionize.

After the ruling, NYU agreed to a contract with UAW that increased the university's cost for graduate student benefits by 50 percent, according to Wheeler. The contract raised stipends for many NYU graduate assistants by almost 40 percent, provided health care benefits and paid extra if they worked more than 20 hours a week.

Following the precedent set at NYU, graduate students at Brown, Columbia, Tufts Univ-ersity and the University of Pennsylvania organized campaigns and took votes on whether to unionize. At Brown, 450 graduate students petitioned to be represented by UAW, the same union that was, at the time, representing graduate students at NYU.

All of those universities ap-pealed their graduate students' petitions to unionize, once again putting the decision in the hands of the NLRB. However, because one of the board's five seats was vacant until December 2003, all of its rulings were consequently postponed.

Graduate students' moves to unionize at private universities were further deterred when President George W. Bush appointed a Republican to the vacant seat, tipping the NLRB's balance away from the Democrats.

In July 2004 the Republican-controlled NLRB made its ruling in Brown's case, concluding that graduate teaching and research assistants are essentially students, not workers.

The NLRB ruled that private universities are not obligated to negotiate with academic student employees, though they may elect to do so. The ruling reversed the four-year-old decision involving NYU.

The NLRB stated in its conclusion that "there is a significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process."

NYU subsequently severed ties with UAW when their contract expired Aug. 31. At the time, the university pledged to increase the current $18,000 minimum annual base for graduate teaching assistants by $1,000 a year for the next three years and to continue paying for graduate students' health insurance.

But since then there have been major reductions in health care benefits for graduate students at NYU, according to Wheeler. Out-of-pocket maximums for health care that used to be between $2,000 and $4,000 are now between $3,000 and $6,000, and the price of prescriptions has gone from $20 to $35 for a brand-name drug, he said.

Over the course of the last week, the marching and drumming of NYU graduate assistants has been joined by graduate students from Yale, Columbia, Penn and certain SUNY campuses and, at one point, 25 seventh-graders from Queens. NYU undergraduates and faculty have been showing their support by wearing pro-union buttons and armbands. Today, the New York City Council is set to join the picket lines to show its solidarity.

In a letter sent Wednesday, President of the American Federation of Teachers Edward McElroy urged NYU President John Sexton to recognize the authority of the GSOC/UAW.

"On behalf of the 1.3 million members of the American Federation of Teachers, including over 150,000 faculty, professional staff and graduate employees at colleges and universities across the United States, I urge you to do the right thing," McElroy wrote.

"I've been pretty well-informed, just because (worker's rights) matter to me," said Carrena McHugh, a freshman in NYU's Tisch School. "We're not allowed to be penalized for not going to class if we have to cross a picket line (to get there). I won't cross because I respect what they're doing," she said.

Of the 2,700 classes taught at NYU on any given Tuesday, about 150 are taught by a graduate assistant, according to the Washington Square News.

McHugh has not missed any classes because of the strike - instead, her teachers have conducted classes in cafés, common rooms and their own homes. She said she knows students who have missed entire days of class or lost hours trekking to alternate class locations.

"There's a tremendous amount of support for graduate student employees," Wheeler said. "We've had hundreds of full-time faculty move their classes off-campus in solidarity with the strike."

Wheeler was part of a group of nearly 80 people - including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney - who were arrested Aug. 30 on charges of "disorderly conduct" while protesting NYU's decision to not renew the contract.

"We had a contract," Wheeler said. "For them to say they're not going to do this anymore, it's just outrageous."

At Brown, where graduate student employees never got as far as a contract, efforts to unionize seem relatively absent on campus.

"The crux of (the graduate student struggle) happened five years ago, if not more," said Sarah Wald, a third-year American civilization graduate student at Brown. "You've got a lot of turnover ... I think a lot of (Brown) grad students don't even know about (the potential for unionization)," she said, adding that she was not at Brown during graduate student attempts to unionize.

Wald noted that Brown increased pay and drastically improved health care options to counter the drive towards graduate student unionization. She said she believes that graduate students employed by private universities should be allowed to unionize.

"Graduate students at public universities have the right, so graduate students at private universities deserve the right as well. If workers want to unionize and ask for better working conditions, their rights need to be respected," Wald said. "I think it's a huge shame on Brown University that people (at NYU) are now having to struggle to maintain the recognition of a union that once was because of the actions of this University," she said.

In an e-mail sent to NYU students in early November, Provost David McLaughlin accused the UAW of violating their written promise not to interfere with NYU's academic decision-making.

"There was a time during the summer when GSOC and the union might have emerged as the collective bargaining representative of our graduate assistants," NYU President John Sexton wrote in an e-mail to students Monday. "That time has passed."

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