• November 26, 2014

NYU Again Tells Union It's Willing to Bargain—but Not With Everyone

[Updated (10/7/2013, 12:37 p.m.) with response from the university.]

New York University is willing to let some graduate students vote on whether to form a union, marking a possible return to the collective-bargaining rights they once held. It's a pitch the university made months ago and reiterated to union organizers on Friday.

In a letter to a United Auto Workers official, Terrance Nolan, NYU's deputy general counsel, said the university would be willing to bargain immediately with teaching assistants and graduate assistants if they voted in favor of a union—but only if the United Auto Workers agreed to keep research assistants out of the bargaining unit.

Union organizers, though, aren't interested in splitting up the group. They didn't agree to the offer when it was first made, in February, and they still don't think it's a good idea.

"We wouldn't make any agreement that excludes research assistants," said Matt C. Canfield, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in NYU's anthropology department and a member of the UAW's Graduate Student Organizing Committee. "Research assistants would benefit from the same protections that GAs and TAs would get from being in a union."

John H. Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, responded early Monday to a request for comment about the timing of the university's offer. The letter, he said, is a move to reaffirm the offer made earlier this year and to clarify the university's views.

"For NYU, the issue is not whether we are prepared to move forward with an election for a bargaining unit of fully funded graduate students who have chosen to take on teaching or other duties that formerly fell under the categories of teaching assistants (TAs) or graduate assistants (GAs), but the inclusion of RAs in that bargaining unit," Mr. Beckman wrote in an e-mail.

In the past, NYU officials have said that research assistants don't belong in the bargaining unit because they don't do research in exchange for pay, but as a required part of their academic programs.

In 2001, after a lengthy legal battle, NYU was the first private university in the country to recognize a graduate-employee union—one that included research assistants. The union's contract called for a 40-percent increase in stipends, health benefits, and overtime pay if assistants worked more than 20 hours per week.

But in 2004 the National Labor Relations Board reversed a previous ruling, declaring that graduate students had no right to unionize because they are students, not employees. When the graduate-employee union's contract expired, in 2005, NYU refused to renew it, citing the labor board's decision.

Since then, NYU's graduate teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and research assistants have pressured the university and the NLRB to restore their collective-bargaining rights. In May graduate students held a rally and delivered an open letter to NYU's president, John E. Sexton, that was signed by more than 250 elected state officials, along with a petition from more than 1,000 teaching and research assistants.

Last month five New York City mayoral candidates wrote a letter to NYU administrators that urged them to recognize graduate students' right to unionize.

In the end the university said it planned to await a decision from the NLRB, which is revisiting its 2004 ruling at the request of union organizers at NYU and its affiliated Polytechnic Institute of NYU.

The Graduate Student Organizing Committee has consistently said the university doesn't need to wait for the labor board to rule on the matter.

"We're committed to open communication and dialogue with them," Mr. Canfield said, "even in the absence of the NLRB's decision."

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