It’s not exactly what they hoped for, but New York University students are celebrating.
After a battle spanning nearly a decade between students, the National Labor Relations Board and the administration of NYU, graduate students who also work as employees — most of them as teaching assistants — will be the first private university students allowed to join a national union and collectively bargain with their employer.
But unlike most unionized workers, NYU’s students won’t be covered under NLRB labor law. That's because, in a last-minute decision, the students decided to ditch their petition to be recognized by the board, and instead worked out an agreement with the school itself to allow unionization without governmental recognition.
Now, assuming most graduate student employees vote in favor of the measure, the students will be represented by the United Auto Workers union. Any disputes between the the students and NYU will be mediated by an independant arbitrator who will rule based on NLRB standards.
While the decision is a few steps shy of the full-fledged federal union status many have spent years fighting for, NYU student organizers say they hope their alternative route to representation will set a precedent for other private universities with graduate student employees who want better pay, benefits and a place at the table in university decisions.
Activists say relying on an NLRB decision on whether graduate students can be treated as union-eligible employees was too risky.
“We had (labor standards) that are really good at NYU, but nothing to protect them,” said Christy Thornton, a Latin American history student and organizer. “We’ve seen how the NLRB is used like a political football. While this decision hasn’t set an NLRB precedent, it’s still precedent-setting.”
The NLRB has proved unreliable in its support of the idea in the past. NYU graduate students were able to join the UAW in 2002, but after several new members were appointed to the NLRB in 2004, the provision granting graduate students employee status was revoked. NYU refeused to renew graduate student union membership in 2005, and negotiations have been ongoing ever since.
That all changed late last month when NYU’s president, John Sexton, announced that the university would recognize the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and bargain with it in good faith.
It’s not clear why the university chose to recognize the group now. Some speculate that, because the Obama administration will likely appoint more labor-friendly members to the NLRB, NYU decided to act before it was forced to.
But the decision means the graduate students will have to withdraw their petition from the NLRB — therefore quashing the chance to set a national legal precedent for graduate student employment, at least for now.
Even without legal recognition, other private universities have taken notice and are beginning to explore whether they can establish similar unions.
“After returning every year to the question of what to do without the NLRB, we’ve started looking at what else to do, and (NYU) just put some options on the table that we haven’t even been able to imagine,” said Molly Cunningham, a graduate student and organizer at the University of Chicago. “This definitely seems to change the game a little bit.”
Still, students expressed a little disappointment that a more permanent, federally recognized form of unionization, sought for so many years, seemed to be no closer to reality.
“Under Obama, we were hoping the NLRB would give a decision more in our favor, but as we were waiting, our health care costs went up by 35 percent,” said Matt Canfield, an NYU anthropology student and union organizer. “It’s not a setback for us. But there are trade-offs.”