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NYU graduate students win a historic victory for social justice unionism

NYU graduate students rally for a fair contract on November 21, 2014. (Facebook / NYU AWDU)

NYU graduate students rally for a fair contract on November 21, 2014. (Facebook / NYU AWDU)

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee of the United Autoworkers, or GSOC, reached a historic, tentative agreement with administrators at New York University, averting a strike that was scheduled to begin just hours later. After over a year of tense negotiations, the agreement is a major victory for graduate students and the result of a renewed push to mobilize the Manhattan campus.

As GSOC member-organizer and sixth year sociology Ph.D. candidate Daniel Aldana Cohen put it, “We definitely have the feeling that organizing is working right now.”

Under the prospective new contract, NYU will cover 90 percent of graduate workers’ health premiums, and provide basic dental insurance along with wage increases for Ph.D. students. The agreement further includes a 75 percent subsidy for childcare, plus bonuses and back pay for some workers.

Last spring, the administration’s “basic offer was to take the situation that already existed at NYU and put the word contract on it,” according to Cohen. The agreement remained largely unchanged until early Tuesday morning, when — after five hours of negotiation — NYU representatives agreed to a compromise.

Perhaps the largest concession on the union’s side is that the contract, unanimously agreed to by the bargaining committee for the graduate students, is likely to last for five, rather than three, years. Given the transitory nature of graduate students, such a long contract could make it difficult to maintain the militancy fostered during the past year’s contract fight.

Until the tentative agreement is ratified into a real contract, workers at NYU Polytechnic will continue to earn just $10 an hour. NYU undergraduates, meanwhile, pay as much as $78,000 each year, and are offered scant financial aid. As the university expands further, both in Greenwich Village and in its extensive network of campuses abroad, the school’s revenue (minus expenses) has ballooned to $399 million, as documented by publicly-available tax forms.

“I’m from Toronto … and I just assumed based on my experience with Canadian universities that when I got to NYU I would be able to join a union for the first time in my life,” Cohen said. “I was so shocked and appalled when I got here to learn that not only did NYU not have a union, but was actually kind of a union-busting university.” Although he had worked on progressive issues prior to enrolling at NYU, Cohen said that, in joining the union drive, he “learned a lot of good organizing very quickly.”

While GSOC, representing around 1,000 graduate workers, is the only union of grad students at a private university in the country, its path to recognition has been rocky. Initially legalized by an appeal to the Clinton-era National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, in 2000, GSOC became the first and — to this point — only union of its kind. With the advent of the Bush administration, however, and a fresh wave of organizing by graduate students at other private universities, the NLRB struck down a similar appeal by Brown University students in 2005. The decision reversed the NYU precedent, and gave the school’s administration an out. After a year-long strike the same year, NYU refused to recognize the union.

In December 2013, under new pressure from grad workers, the university once again recognized GSOC without an NLRB mandate, initiating a union election that earned 98.4 percent support for the union. Negotiations began the following spring and progressed at a snail’s pace thanks to university intransigence. On March 6, Provost David McLaughlin sent an email to NYU undergraduates discouraging the strike — highlighting their “generous” concessions and adding ominously that any costs imposed by the new contract “would have to be borne by revenues from tuition.”

Out of the tension and stagnancy of negotiations, virtually all GSOC bargaining committee members resigned in September, giving way to a hotly contested election for leadership. Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, or AWDU, a caucus within the union, formed in advance of the election and won a landslide victory, along with a majority on the bargaining committee. Graduate workers at the University of California-Berkeley (UAW Local 2865) also have an AWDU unit. Like the Caucus of Rank and File Educators within the Chicago Teachers Union, both AWDU caucuses are modeled on the concepts of democratic social justice unionism — namely, placing a central focus on rank-and-file leadership development and the impacts of such factors as race and gender on members’ lives within and outside of the workplace. As Cohen explained, “The whole theory of social justice unionism is that there’s more to a union than the strike and the wage rate.”

This perspective influenced the way the union at large pursued its contract fight. AWDU injected the negotiations with a more youthful militancy than one might expect from the UAW, holding direct actions and utilizing social media to spread their message to the public and the rest of campus. Cohen notes that the UAW “treated the strike more like a petition drive,” and “were indifferent to the entire realm of symbolic communication and the idea of winning the narrative.” At a culminating rally in early December, union members brought a DIY marching band into the university’s main library, busting open a swine piñata bank representing university profits. The caucus further pushed for open bargaining, which made the negotiations process more participatory for rank-and-file members.

AWDU was also eager to form coalitions with undergraduates, alliances that had first been forged during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. With active student campaigns around student debt, justice in Palestine and fossil fuel divestment, undergraduate student groups worked with graduate workers in the final stretch to ramp up pressure on the administration. Days before the agreement was reached, over 500 undergraduates and 100 faculty members signed on in support of the strike, with many showing up to rallies and to support the bargaining committee during late-night negotiations for a “just” desserts potluck.

“We did a social movement union campaign,” Cohen reflected, “and we got a social justice contract, with the highest raises going to the lowest paid.” Moving forward, AWDU hopes to continue utilizing the coalition ties formed around the contract fight for broader campus and citywide campaigns. Tuesday’s victory, however, might be as instructive to traditional union leadership as it is to NYU organizers. To riff on an old labor slogan: sustained grassroots organizing and creative direct action get the goods.