Graduate students who teach and work on research projects at New York University (NYU) and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU voted to join UAW Local 2110 and, once again, became the first graduate, teaching and research assistants at a private university to win union recognition.
The vote came during a union representation election held by the National Labor Relations Board on December 10 and 11. Of those voting, 98 percent voted for the union.
The organizing work that led to union recognition was carried out by the NYU Graduate Students Organizing Committee (GSOC/UAW), a rank and file organization of graduate, teaching, and research assistants who have been fighting for union recognition for 15 years.
“This is a huge victory that puts us in a position to negotiate for things that really mater to us,” said Natasha Raheja, an anthropology teaching assistant and PhD candidate. “We are determined to reach an agreement on a strong union contract by the end of this academic year.”
After an organizing campaign that began in 1998, GSOC/UAW in 2000 won a union election and in 2001 signed a collective bargaining agreement with NYU that increased pay by 38 percent, provided for employer paid health care coverage, established protections against discrimination and sexual harassment, and set up a grievance procedure that included legally binding third-party arbitration.
But in 2004, the NLRB dominated by a George W. Bush appointed anti-union majority overturned a previous board decision that gave graduate student teaching and research assistants the right to form unions and bargain collectively.
As a result of the board’s reversal when GSOC/UAW’s original collective bargaining agreement expired in 2005, NYU refused to bargain with its graduate student union.
NYU’s administration hoped that by refusing to bargain, the union would fade away.
Instead, GSOC/UAW continued to act like a union even though it wasn’t officially recognized.
It organized rallies and demonstrations and continued to fight for a voice for teaching and research assistants.
For example in 2012 when the NYU administration substantially increased employee health care costs, GSOC/UAW got more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to protest the increase and organized a meeting with NYU administrators to explain the devastating impact that the increases would have on graduate students.
GSOC/UAW did not confine its organizing to narrow economic issues. It actively supported changes to the nation’s immigration law that will make it possible for 11 million workers without immigration documents to become US citizens.
It also joined demonstrations supporting Bangladesh garment workers who suffered from impoverishing wages and deadly working conditions.
When the NLRB was no longer dominated by an anti-union majority, GSOC/UAW began organizing for another union recognition election.
In 2010, GSOC/UAW members gathered 1,800 signatures on union representation cards. A delegation of GSOC/UAW members met with and urged NYU’s administration to recognize the wishes of the overwhelming majority of teaching and research assistants by recognizing the union.
The administration chose to ignore the majority, which led GSOC/UAW to file a union election petition with the NLRB.
In 2011, the NLRB agreed to hold hearings on the petition.
While the NLRB was considering testimony heard during the hearings, GSOC/UAW continued to pressure the administration to recognize the union.
GSOC/UAW won the support of community leaders and prominent politicians who expressed their support for the union to NYU’s President John Sexton.
Finally in November 2013, NYU and GSOC/UAW reached what the union called an “unprecedented agreement.”
The administration agreed to remain neutral and allow graduate, teaching, and research assistants to vote on whether to join UAW Local 2110 and bargain collectively with the administration.
After the agreement was announced, Julie Kushner, UAW Region 9A director who assisted the GSOC/UAW members in their organizing efforts, praised the members.
“The tenacity shown by these workers over the last eight years is inspiring and has produced an innovative agreement,” said Kushner, “As an organization, the UAW is proud to have stood with these workers since 1998, and we are committed to standing with workers wherever they show this type of interest in organizing for a voice in their workplace.”
As a result of the agreement 1,247 graduate, teaching, and research assistants had the opportunity to vote in the union election and will be covered by the new collective bargaining agreement resulting from the vote–a larger number than were covered by the 2001 agreement.
After the union election victory was announced GSOC/UAW issued a statement saying that more work remains ahead.
“Our work is far from over,” reads the statement. “Now we must prepare to negotiate a contract by the end of this academic year that improves our lives and makes NYU a more accessible and inclusive place to teach and learn. Together we will develop issues for the bargaining table and organize a solid contract campaign. So, after the new year, we will elect a bargaining committee, vote on ratifying initial bargaining demands, and begin contract negotiations with the university’s team.”