Opinion

Why NYU grad students fought to unionize

An important victory over the corporatization of the university

December 16, 2013 5:30AM ET
A university banner in New York City.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 11, New York University's graduate student employees voted overwhelmingly for union representation, making NYU the only private university in the country with unionized graduate workers. Teaching, research and program assistants from dozens of departments at NYU, including the history department, where I teach, participated in the two-day election, marking the culmination of an eight-year organizing effort on the part of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/United Auto Workers Local 2110. The decisive victory — with 620 voting in favor of the union and just 10 voting against — gives the union a strong mandate as we enter contract negotiations over pay, health care costs and job stability with the university administration. That mandate represents an important victory not only for university workers across the country but also for the parents of current and future college students and for the graduate students themselves.

There has been a vast restructuring of higher education in the past few decades, as universities have come to be run increasingly like corporations, with an emphasis on their international branding and an eye to the bottom line. This restructuring has brought about many important changes — an enormous expansion in the number of highly paid executive administrators; a greater focus on revenue generation, with some colleges deciding to cut departments like history and English, which are deemed unprofitable; an increasing reliance on part-time adjunct faculty, whose meager pay and lack of benefits have driven some to public assistance; and most important for students and their families, massive increases in tuition and student debt.

At NYU a typical student in one of my classes is likely to graduate with almost 50 percent more student debt than the national average; the school has the highest total student debt in the country. The cost of attending NYU is among the highest in the country, and its financial aid remains woefully inadequate — a fact thrown into sharp relief when it was disclosed this summer that the university was footing the bill for high-priced vacation homes for its executives. After the vacation-home scandal focused national attention on the university's financial priorities, the administration announced a new fundraising campaign focused on increasing student scholarships, a step in the right direction. But the larger, underlying problem remains. The national trend toward corporate-style governance shortchanges the core mission of the university: research, teaching and learning.

This victory offers a decisive rebuke to the corporate vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion.

The graduate students' victory at NYU shows that this trend can be slowed and perhaps even reversed by demonstrating that shared governance can strengthen the university and the higher-education sector as a whole. In 2001, when the National Labor Relations Board (the federal body that regulates workplace organization) first forced NYU to recognize our union, our historic win buoyed unionization efforts of the university's clerical workers and adjunct faculty as well as similar organizing drives at other private universities across the country. But the NLRB ruling was overturned by George W. Bush administration appointees in 2004, who argued that the relationship between graduate students and their universities was primarily academic, not economic — despite the many kinds of paid labor we do. After the decision, NYU refused to continue to recognize our rights to collective representation, as part of university president John Sexton's larger strategic vision for NYU as a growth-driven, cost-cutting business. That vision has resulted in controversial expansion plans in Greenwich Village and around the world as well as in the scandalous executive-compensation packages that have caught the attention of members of Congress. Our union has stood with faculty and student organizations throughout the last few years to argue that this strategy has taken NYU far afield from our mission of education and has negatively affected not only our working conditions but also our students' learning conditions.

At NYU many graduate students receive relatively generous fellowships to study, thanks in large part to the gains we made under our last contract, which, for example, raised graduate-student stipends by 38 percent. But without a contract, those gains could be taken away at any moment. We saw this last year, when the university decided to raise health care costs by 33 percent — and without a recognized union, there was little we could do to address it. As we enter into contract negotiations, will we argue for workplace protections that ensure stability and fairness in how jobs are assigned, so administrators will not be able to cancel teaching or research assignments at the last minute without fair compensation; that recognize the family needs of our graduate workers, so we do not have to choose between caring for our children and doing our research; and that provide affordable and comprehensive health care, so we will not have to face paying for dental work rather than paying for food. What is more, having a contract will ensure that economic decisions are separated from academic ones, so our relationships with the professors who supervise us can focus on our scholarship, not our wages.

With the decision to allow us to exercise our democratic right to vote for the union, the administration has recognized what we have long argued: that our work is vital to the university and that the union makes NYU a better and more stable workplace and, because of that, a stronger university. In our upcoming contract negotiations, we will fight to improve the lives of the graduate employees who do the core work of the university — teaching and research. But the contract will do a great deal more. It will serve as an important precedent, showing that this sort of agreement can be productive for private universities across the country. Already, activists involved in similar campaigns elsewhere are looking to our victory for inspiration. One University of Chicago organizer told Al Jazeera that the NYU agreement has "put some options on the table that we haven't even been able to imagine." Our success also offers a decisive rebuke to the corporate vision of the university based on rising indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion.

This victory shows that those of us working in higher education can organize collectively to change our universities — for the benefit of not just the workers but the students and parents as well. 

Christy Thornton is a PhD candidate in history at New York University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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