The Manhattan (Union) Project: New York University Graduates to Vote for Unionization

We all know that April showers can bring May flowers, but as students and administrators at New York University are finding out, April downpours can bring new laws!

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs interactions between unions and employers, has supported a petition by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to classify some of New York University's (NYU) graduate assistants as employees. The decision, announced earlier this month, is unprecedented because it will mean that for the first time, graduate students enrolled at a private academic institution will be able to vote in an election to form their own union. The ruling has nationwide implications specifically for privately funded institutions, because it may spark a rash of unionization petitions from graduate organizations across the United States.

The Decision

NLRB regional director Daniel Silverman ruled in his "Decision and Direction of Election" released on 3 April, that a sector of NYU's graduate population--"teaching assistants, graduate assistants, research assistants, including fellows and teaching fellows"--should be regarded as employees. Students who are paid by the university to perform certain duties are to be called employees, which allows them to vote for a union. In what has become a controversial caveat, however, Silverman's decision simultaneously excludes graduate assistants at the Sackler Institute of NYU's School of Medicine and research assistants funded by external grants in the physics, biology, and chemistry departments and the Center for Neuroscience.

The Voters

Under his ruling, approximately 1400 of NYU's 17,500 graduates based in downtown Manhattan are eligible to vote for unionization and the chance to become affiliated with the UAW--an organization that has previously won unionization petitions for graduates at state-supported institutions including the University of California and the University of Massachusetts. The majority of NYU's 1400-member electorate are arts and humanities students, paid by their departments for services they perform for the university.

The Argument

But determining exactly which graduate students are eligible to vote and which aren't is proving to be a fractious process. One problem is that graduates alternate between department-paid teaching assistant positions and externally funded research posts. Their eligibility to vote would depend on the timing of the elections and their current classification at that time.

A still bigger bone of contention for NYU officials is that the ruling appears to exclude those in science-related fields from voting to become part of the union's collective bargaining unit.

UAW'S Perspective

Stephen Yokich, president of the UAW, views Silverman's ruling as a victory for NYU graduates, saying the ruling "provides graduate teaching assistants with a fundamental right ... to form and be represented by a union."

But UAW organizers find themselves explaining time and again the decision to exclude some science students. Julie Kushner, subregional director for the UAW, says that, in reality, only "a handful" of science research assistants on the main campus have been excluded from the vote, because they perform no duties for the university. "The university is attempting to create an issue where there is none--this is really a nonissue," contends Kushner. Lisa Jessup, a UAW staffer and organizer, confirms that many scientists can take part: She expects that "a couple of hundred science graduates" will participate next week.

The UAW and NLRB conclusions are derived, in part, from testimonies provided by NYU that were used in UAW's original petition. Joel Oppenheim, associate dean for graduate studies at the Sackler Institute, for example, "testified categorically" that Sackler's 220 Ph.D. and Ph.D./M.D. graduate assistants have "no teaching or research assistant duties." Consequently, Sackler students were disqualified from voting. Similar testimony was provided from those in biology and physics. Jessup says that research assistants funded through external grants are not receiving payment from the university and so cannot be considered employees and cannot vote.

NYU'S Perspective

John Beckman, NYU's assistant vice president for public affairs, says that NYU is still unhappy and contends that "the exclusion of students is highly illogical." For example, Peter Lennie, NYU's dean for science, tells Next Wave that "those in computer science are eligible to vote but those in physics are not." The petition and the UAW's interpretation of the facts "illustrates the critical lack of understanding of graduate education," says Beckman. The bottom line is that the NYU administration "strongly disagrees" with Silverman's decision, which NYU Vice President Robert Berne characterizes in an NYU press release as "a departure from the law as it existed for some 25 years."

NYU Provost Harvey Stedman fears that the UAW will become involved in academic issues and cites unionization as the cause of rising tension and "factionalism" among graduate assistants at the University of Massachusetts. He believes the NLRB regional director "wrongly described the relationship between graduate assistants and the university" and goes on to say, in a statement released 13 April, that the decision to exclude "225 graduate assistants" should be reviewed. "We believe this exclusion is based on a mistaken view of what these and other students do in performing research," he says.

The NLRB decision "squarely divides the community of Ph.D. students in science departments," concurs Lennie, who estimates there are 460 Ph.D. students in the basic sciences and mathematics. Lennie is "strongly encouraging all students who can vote to do so," but disagrees with UAW's rationale for eligibility. The "exclusions of research assistants," Lennie believes, is "incomprehensibly arbitrary."

The Proponents

"Graduate teaching assistants have improved their lives by achieving a say in what they are paid," says Jessup in a UAW-released statement. Most unions, she says, have fully paid or largely subsidized health care--"a far cry from the situation at NYU."

Jason Patch, an NYU graduate student in the department of sociology who is also helping to organize the UAW drive, believes a union will galvanize many students and bring people together. The union would also better negotiate issues such as housing and health care, says Patch. He hopes the university would be compelled to offer union-negotiated benefits to all NYU students. "I'd like to think, with a union contract, the university would be put under a lot of pressure," says Patch. "They would look morally wrong" if they did not provide benefits university-wide, he says.

The Opponents

Gloria Coruzzi, director of the graduate program at NYU's department of biology, and her colleagues have fought to ensure graduates are treated equally, regardless of funding source. She believes unionization will "create a two-tiered graduate system" and will be a "nightmare." Coruzzi is "having a hard time seeing any positive coming out of this." She does concede, however, that if there is to be an election, then " all the students" should be given the chance to vote.

Like many of his colleagues, David Chesler, a biology graduate student, routinely alternates between being a teaching assistant and a research assistant. As a teacher, Chesler would be eligible to vote, but as researcher, he would probably be ineligible, if paid from external grants. Consequently, many graduate students may find themselves in the upcoming academic year "subject to a union that they had no choice in voting for," Chesler rationalizes. The UAW's approach "strikes me as blatant gerrymandering," he argues.

He reveals "a degree of shock and disbelief" when he discusses potential union policies and the wallop they can pack. In a contract drawn up by the UAW and the University of Massachusetts, for example, graduate employees who fail to pay union fees will be suspended--without pay--for 2 weeks.


Meanwhile, Yale University, another private university locked in union disputes, is watching closely as events at NYU unfold: Their Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), for example, is hoping the outcome gives them the legal confirmation they seek to push ahead with their own unionization petition--with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union--despite objections from Yale's officials. "If the Yale administration has any respect for the law" it should accept the new precedents at NYU, says GESO Chair Rebecca Ruquist in GESO's Web site.

Next Wave understands that Stedman will appeal to the full NLRB board, which consists of five members, all appointed by President Clinton, to stay the election scheduled for 25 to 27 April. The university has until 24 April to file a request for review to NLRB headquarters in Washington, D.C. Many are sure the vote will go ahead as planned, but they expect that the ballots might be impounded until after the review takes place.

Given the confusion, the pro- and antiunion campaigns are getting more heated as both sides try to rally their sympathizers. Next week's elections, which seem likely to go ahead, could see a change in the U.S. graduate system. April's showers could yet yield union powers.

What do you think? Are you an employee, and if so, would you vote to join a union? Let us know in our discussion on graduate student unionization.

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