NYU Grads Win Vote to Unionize Amid Controversy

8 NOVEMBER--Graduate assistants at New York University (NYU) won the right to form a union today, by a margin of 179 votes. But in an echo of the country's presidential election, controversy surrounds the vote. The United Auto Workers (UAW) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have challenged almost 300 ballots that were cast when the voting took place in April but that were not included in this week's count.

At a public hearing held at the NLRB's offices in downtown Manhattan, it was announced that graduate assistants voting for unionization won by 597 votes to 418. After being impounded since the April election, the ballots were only counted after the NLRB ruled last week that a subset of NYU graduate assistants are treated by the university as employees and so are entitled to vote for bargaining rights and representation by the UAW.

"The graduate assistants have spoken, and it is now time for NYU to respect their decision and the law by sitting down at the bargaining table," says Kimberley Johnson, a member of NYU's Graduate Students Organizing Committee, in a UAW press release.

Confusion Over Voter Eligibility

But the UAW's moment of victory has been muted, because there is a chance that 295 outstanding votes could sway the final result in favor of the university. "The 295 ballots have not been counted at this point," concurs NLRB official Nicholas Lewis. They are "under investigation" and could possibly "affect the outcome" of the election.

The NLRB and the UAW cite a number of reasons for challenging these ballots. The UAW argues that over 90 of the 295 challenged ballots were cast by graduate students enrolled in NYU's Stern School of Business. These individuals should not have been allowed to vote, says the UAW, because they do not receive stipends from the university--a criterion the UAW contends needs to be met in order to establish "employee" status and thus voter eligibility. The UAW also contends that because the other 200 or so ballots were cast by graduate assistants not on the list of eligible voters that the university submitted to the NLRB they, too, should be excluded from the count.

The NLRB, the UAW says, has formally challenged the 200-odd people who voted but who were not on the official list of voters. "It's something we automatically do," says Lewis. But the UAW did not mention, in their press release, their own challenges against Stern students. "That strikes me as immensely discreet of them," remarks NYU spokesperson John Beckman. In contrast, the university administration has not disputed the legitimacy of any vote.

Controversies over voter eligibility preceded the April vote, with the UAW arguing that science graduate students and research assistants in NYU's Sackler Institute, as well as those in the departments of biology and physics, cannot vote because their pay comes from external grants and not from the university; that decision was based to some extent, however, on testimonies given to the NLRB by NYU faculty members earlier this year. Teaching assistants in the sciences who are paid by the university for their services, on the other hand, could vote.

Business and science graduate students have been among the most outspoken against unionization at the private university, and so the challenges "give the impression," says Beckman, that the UAW wants to block the inclusion of their votes.

Although the science-enrolled groups of students were officially excluded from voting, nobody is entirely sure whether any or all participated in the vote. Even so, UAW staffer Lisa Jessup is confident that once this issue has been resolved, the UAW "will retain our winning margin." Officials from both sides will meet over the next few days to go over enrollment records of the 295 contested voters to determine their status--and thus eligibility--at the time of the election.

Ground-Zero Opinions

Humanities students, who constitute the main driving force behind the campaign, share Jessup's enthusiasm, feeling "exalted" and victorious. "I feel like the union is the only way to wake up the administration," says Jason Patch, a sociology graduate who has been heavily involved in campaigning. "Everyone's happy," remarks Jessup, "but fed up with [these] delays."

But not every NYU graduate student is pleased with today's outcome: "There should not be unionization, because we are primarily students," says biology graduate student Derek Ireland. Ireland cast his vote in April, because he was a teaching assistant at the time. A union "has the potential to be a disaster," adds David Chesler, also a graduate student in the biology department.

The university's administration concurs. "The idea that nothing good can be achieved [at NYU] without a union is balderdash," remarks Catharine Stimpson, dean of NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Science. She says the minimum stipend for science graduate students has increased by 33% over the last 3 years. "The reason we want to be so careful," explains Stimpson, is because NYU is governed by national--not state--labor laws. Unlike state labor rules, national regulations do not prevent strikes or the involvement of unions in academic affairs.

Tactical Maneuvers?

Jessup sees greater benefits of the unionization vote. She asserts that although the UAW cannot bargain for nonunion members, students who are "not workers" can "still benefit from us being an organization that advocates issues and inspires people to be activists."

But those kinds of sentiments irk Chesler further. He believes the odds were stacked against union opponents from the get-go, because Dan Silverman (the regional NLRB official whose decision to classify certain NYU graduate students as employees ignited this controversial episode earlier this year) has "a history of being pro-union." When asked about this possibility, the UAW's Jessup admits only that Silverman "has been good for workers."

New York's local UAW director, Phil Wheeler, is cautiously optimistic: "If the university approaches these negotiations constructively, we can fashion a contract that will be mutually beneficial."

Chesler is not so sure. "I just hope those who voted for the union don't regret it," he says.

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