Student Union

In 2002, New York University graduate student employees made history, becoming the first at any private institution to unionize. But NYU also has a history of administration hostility to grad student organizing. When the contract for the university's Graduate School Organizing Committee, the GSOC/UAW Local 2110, expired in 2005, the school's administration denied renewal, arguing that graduate teaching assistants should not be considered employees. With the support of the Bush-era National Labor Relations Board, the school administration denied recognition of the union.

With the likelihood that President Barack Obama will appoint more labor-friendly members to the NLRB, NYU has shifted tactics. In July of this year, the administration announced a graduate-funding restructuring program called FAR-4. The new plan finally deems graduate students who work at NYU employees but classifies them as adjunct faculty, denying grad students their own union representation. In addition, all grad students must now work a full year as a volunteer before they can receive any payment at all. Most graduate-level positions were completely eliminated, leaving students and faculty grasping weeks before the fall semester began, in the midst of a recession.

The Prospect spoke to Rana Jaleel, a student representative of Local 2110, to discuss the problems faced by GSOC/UAW as well as the plight of grad student employees left without funding.

The Prospect: How has the administration's decision to restructure graduate funding affected students?

Rana Jaleel: It's deregulation. The university has made these decisions but has asked the departments to implement them according to whatever specifications best fit the department. It's been really uneven, and it's had a lot of different effects in all different departments.

At the very base of it, though, we're still without a contract; we basically don't have a voice in our workplace or in any of the terms and conditions of our employment. That's been the real issue for us -- it's been about the power discrepancy. We're pretty vulnerable right now without the contract.

What's happening with this restructuring is that in order to make the same amount of money that people would have made as [teaching assistants], because they're now paid at the adjunct rate, they're now teaching a much [heavier] course load. They're technically getting paid the same amount of money, but they're doing much more work for it.

How has the administration's plan changed Local 2110's relationship with NYU?

We're the union for all graduate employees – teaching assistants, people who grade, research assistants, program assistants, graduate assistants who perform administrative works. We have a different relationship as graduate students to the institution than maybe adjuncts have, who are just teachers. Even under the terms of the adjunct contract, there are graduate teaching positions that wouldn't be eligible for protection. Our ability to organize and represent ourselves as the union for all graduate employees has been, in some ways, hurt by this move on the university's part.

The FAR-4 and the restructuring from our perspective isn't really anything new. They're still not negotiating with us and not recognizing our collective-bargaining rights. It's just another example -- maybe more extreme and systematized than some things we've seen in recent years -- but the university is just retaining the unilateral power to make decisions without consulting anyone on whether or not it's good for them. It's very top-down. It's a bigger, more public illustration of the fundamental problem that happens when workers aren't given their collective-bargaining rights.

Do you feel that the school's decision to exclude the union from the decision-making process was intentional?

Oh, it absolutely was. They have not recognized the fact that the majority of graduate employees choose us time and time again to be their representative in collective-bargaining issues.

There has been speculation that this change was enacted because President Obama is more likely to appoint pro-labor NLRB members. Do you believe this is true, and do you have any proof?

The [NYU] administration [was] afraid of what the Obama administration's new policies around employment would do. The university has said that publicly to faculty, and faculty have transmitted it to students. It's not just one administrative faculty person. It's multiple in all sorts of departments. That's something that is generally understood as a fact on campus.

They were really afraid that we would be able to assert our collective-bargaining rights again, and they wanted to try [to] delay that as much as possible. It's basically the administration's attempt to do some sort of end run around the graduate employees. That was part of the reason for the push through on this restructuring. It came very, very quickly. In prior iterations of funding, like FAR-3, there was a process where they consulted with faculty committees about whether or not it would be a good idea. There was none of that in this case. It was clearly and very straightforwardly a union-busting move from the very beginning.

Do you think this will impede any movement forward for graduate student employee unions around the country?

We're just going to continue to fight for our rights here on campus. We're not going away, and I don't think the graduate employee movement is going away. What's happening on the individual campuses could help or hinder that, but in general they're very specific struggles at specific places.