Grad student instructors get organized

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 27 10:21:27 MST 2000

Village Voice, December 27 - January 2, 2001

Working Papers
by Tom Robbins

A University Debates Its Future Decision Time at NYU

Dark talk from employers about "outsiders" intervening in an otherwise
harmonious workplace is the common language of every unionization drive. Be
they steel workers or school teachers, employees are never more beloved and
cherished than when a union is contesting for their affections.

Steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick called his workers "family" until 1892, when
he hired hundreds of Pinkerton detectives to shoot them down.

The high-tech version was voiced last month by's Jeff Bezos.
After disillusioned cyber-employees began to circulate pro-union literature
among themselves, Bezos pronounced unions as unnecessary at his firm
because "Everyone is an owner."

So, too, at private universities where the specter of graduate student
unionization is looming large, thanks to a decision in November by the
National Labor Relations Board to allow a union election by New York
University grad students to go forward.

Results of a vote among the student teaching assistants quickly showed that
a majority—619 to 551—wants a union in order to bring them higher wages,
adequate health benefits, and a say in their workloads.

The vote was immediately translated into an attack on the very framework of
academic collegiality, and the board's decision to allow the vote was
denounced by other universities facing similar union threats. Loudest in
their condemnation were Yale University officials, who have succeeded for
almost a decade in thwarting a graduate organizing effort on their own

The NLRB decision "creates a conflict between national labor policy and
sound national educational policy," said Yale president Richard C. Levin.

Invoking the Frick/Bezos argument, Levin went on: "We continue to believe
that the unionization of graduate student teaching and research assistants
is not in the best interests of graduate students themselves,
undergraduates, or faculty across the country."

Mindful that whatever happens at NYU will create both legal and tactical
precedent elsewhere at private universities, Levin urged NYU to shoulder
its responsibility to the academic community by refusing to talk to the
union: "I would urge NYU to carry the case to the federal courts if it has
the opportunity," he said.

Such is NYU's dilemma as it ponders its next move. On one side, Yale and
other Ivy League militants are pushing it to hang tough, refuse to bargain,
and force the union, the United Auto Workers (which also represents Voice
workers), to file formal unfair labor practice charges against the
university that would eventually bring the matter before the courts. On the
other side, labor-friendly local political officials have urged the
university to open talks with the union.

"We are hearing from some universities that would urge us to continue to
adjudicate, and from elected officials to urge us to bargain," said Robert
Berne, NYU's vice president for academic affairs and health, who is
overseeing the issue.

Berne and other NYU officials have been sounding out faculty, staff, and
students on the topic. Already, there are rumblings of change. Last week,
the Faculty Council reported that a majority of members responding to a
survey supported bargaining with the union.

"Our belief is that if they really do consult with the university community
they will find themselves in a position where they must agree to bargain,"
said the UAW's Julie Kushner.

Berne said the union won't be kept waiting long for NYU's decision. "We are
working to move this ahead," he said. "It should take no more than weeks
into the New Year."

Louis Proyect
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