By GREGORY N. HEIRES
The recent overwhelmingly vote of New York University graduate students to unionize offers hope that academic and other workers will increasingly opt to avoid the traditional employer-biased union recognition elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
The graduate students voted 620 to 10 on Dec. 10 and Dec. 11 to join UAW Local 2011 just two weeks after the union worked out a neutrality agreement with the university. Under the deal, the university pledged not to interfere with the election and agreed to enter contract talks promptly if the students voted to unionize.
“Without an employer-driven campaign, the hostility and divisiveness that too often surrounds union votes never materialized,” said UAW Region 9A Director Julie Kushner.
“NYU’s genuine commitment to neutrality fostered a remarkably respectful environment in which graduate employees were free to choose representation without threats or intimidation. For many, it was a celebration of their right to vote and an important affirmation of their valuable role in the NYU community.”
The NYU vote could serve as a model for other graduate students in private universities around the country who seek to organize.
“I hope that this encourages organizing among graduate students and adjunct faculty,” said Matt Canfield, an anthropology doctoral student who was active in the NYU organizing drive.
The campaign of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW lasted eight years.
NYU graduate students first unionized in 1998 and won a contract in 2001. But in 2004, the National Labor Relations Board under President George W. Bush ruled that graduate students in private-sector universities do not have the right to belong to a union because they are not classified as workers under federal law. (Several states, including New York, Massachusetts, and California, have granted graduate students in public universities the right to organize.)
After the 2004 NLRB decision, NYU refused to recognize the union, and graduate students then began a new campaign to rejoin the UAW. Over the years, health benefits deteriorated, married students become more financially squeezed, job descriptions became fuzzier, and salary disparities increased, according to Canfield.
The breakthrough came with the November neutrality agreement, which, in addition to permitting the representation election, required the union to withdraw petitions it had filed at the NLRB.
The independent American Arbitration Association monitored the December vote. Local 2011 now represents 1,247 graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. Now, NYU is the only private university in the country with unionized graduate students, according to the UAW.
UAW President Bob King said the union hopes the election “will serve as a model that inspires other private universities across the country to pursue similar agreements that recognize workers’ right to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives and their campuses.” The UAW represents more than 45,000 academic workers throughout the country, with members at the University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, University Of California and California State University.
Neutrality agreements are one of the alternatives that unions are turning to as they choose not to recruit members through National Labor Relations Board elections, a path they described as stacked against labor.
Employers often hire anti-union consultants to help them thwart organizing drives. The AFL-CIO says that during organizing campaigns leading up to NLRB elections:
• more than one-third of employers get rid employees who are organizing for a union;
• more than half of the companies faced with organizing drives threaten to close or partially shut down if their employees vote to unionize, and
• 40 percent of employers make illegal changes to wages and benefits, spy on employees and offer bribes to employees to oppose unionization.
Even after workers win NLRB elections, they often face obstacles from their employers.
Nearly 40 percent of new unions are only able to negotiate a first contract within a year after the NLRB vote. Recognizing that problem, the UAW pushed for the November neutrality agreement to include the university’s commitment to enter “good faith” bargaining right away if a majority of the graduate students voted to unionize.
“We have been in contact with other grad students and they have been looking at this,” Canfield said about the NYU campaign. “It’s really important that we continue to emphasize the important role that labor unions play in higher education.”
As the country’s universities continue to adopt corporate practices and increase the use of adjunct professors, academic workers should increasingly look to protect their rights, according to Canfield.
“Now I have a voice,” he said.