What can we learn from the historic NYU Graduate Union strike?

When Arundhati Velamur was in the fourth year of her Doctor of Education program at New York University, she often had conversations with her colleagues about how their department seemed to only hire external candidates for faculty positions. . “It was something we kept talking about, and a lot of us were wondering how we could raise this issue in our department,” said Velamur, who attended the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. . “So we went to the graduate students union and asked how they could help us. ”

New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) responded quickly, connecting Roy and his colleagues with their departmental delegate, the first line of contact for members with grievances, and helping them to learn more about the ongoing efforts to negotiate a new contract for working graduate students. “At this point, I was already seeing GSOC emails in my inbox, but the department’s organization help helped me show that this organization can really make change on campus,” he said. said Velamur.

In 2002, the NYU Graduates Union, which is associated with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, became the first graduates union to be officially recognized by a private university after a strike by a semester, and since then union organizers have increased the rights of graduate workers by fighting for increased allowances and benefits for graduate workers. None of these benefits for workers came easily; the union has never been able to negotiate with the university without the imminent threat of a strike.

The authorization of a strike after 10 months of attempts to negotiate a new contract with the university did not surprise union members. After a three-week strike, the graduate students union and administration reached a tentative agreement on a landmark contract that offered workers a living wage of $ 26 an hour and nearly full health insurance coverage . In addition, he kept the university to a promise to investigate the abolition of cops from the NYU campus.

“Participating in the strike last spring reminded me of how much the union has won over the past 20 years,” said Leandra Barrett Diaz, a representative from GSOC. “And nothing that we got from NYU was by the benevolence of NYU, it’s always graduate workers bustling about, every step of the way.” The strike that ended up making headlines did not happen overnight. It took nearly a year of preparation and outreach efforts by union leaders to ensure that a large majority of GSOC members were ready and willing to join the strike effort.

The union leadership had personally contacted their colleagues since June to find out what the workers wanted in their new contract. Using phone and text banking, they were able to put interested members in touch with someone who could have a more personalized conversation about what the union could do for them. The effects of this kind of outreach were clear: in March, 1,200 graduate students signed a petition calling on the university to end the stalled negotiations. When the union decided to vote to authorize a strike, the number of supporters only increased, with 96 percent of union members voting in favor. “With every step of the organization leading up to the strike, we brought in new waves of people who wanted to know more about our efforts,” said Colin Vanderburg, member of the union’s spring bargaining committee.

Once a strike begins, it is difficult for unions to predict what will happen next. The pressure is mounting, and in some cases the strike fails because the union is unable to present a united front, which the institutions are capitalizing on. Just days before NYU graduate workers went on strike, the Columbia University Graduate Student Union suspended its strike over disagreements among student workers. At NYU, the militant commitment to open bargaining sessions where anyone could watch the committee negotiate with the directors helped avoid situations where grassroots members felt alienated from the leadership team. These open sessions would attract large crowds; Vanderburg said 200 people showed up once to watch them negotiate.

“The leaders were on the strike line every day, and if they weren’t, it was because they were in arbitration,” said Will Goodwin, a grassroots NYU GSOC member. “It wasn’t like a lawyer I had never met before was fighting for my rights, they were people I knew.” Once the strike went off, the GSOC communications team took to social media to make sure people were aware of what the union was up to. Their social media strategy highlighted the popularity of the strike by highlighting the support they received from other unions and progressive politicians, like Bernie Sanders. Abigail Manville, a member of the GSOC communications team, said this made it clear that the strike was not popular with a few members, but with the majority of the community.

“We kept saying throughout the strike that our working conditions are learning conditions for undergraduates,” Manville said. “So if you are willing to pay a high price for your education, you need to be concerned about how your teaching assistants are treated. The communications team also highlighted ways in which the NYU administration was trying to undermine the union’s efforts. Some of their most popular tweets and TikTok Videos discussed how NYU’s official communication emails to parents misrepresented the state of contract negotiations to parents of graduate students, and even how NYU’s chief spokesperson fall asleep during negotiation sessions. These cases found their way into national newspapers, drawing even more attention to the GSOC’s cause. NYU has declined multiple requests for comment on the strike.

“I think maybe in academia in particular, and certainly in universities, there is a kind of uneasiness with any sign of class conflict within the institution because there is this image of the university as an enlightened liberal institution, ”said Vanderburg. The Graduate Students Union is proud of its commitment to supporting social justice issues in its contract negotiations. From the start, the union had called on NYU to consider banning cops from their campus, citing the threat law enforcement poses to those from marginalized groups. In their new contract, the university promised to treat this issue as a health and safety issue and to form a committee to investigate the matter further. While this is not a commitment to ban law enforcement on campus, Velamur believes that the creation of this committee means that the union will be able to continue to push for this measure and to hold NYU accountable for a full investigation into the matter.

“When I first joined the GSOC, what surprised me was that the activists weren’t just looking to ‘stick it’ to NYU,” Roy said. “They were interested in doing something that a lot of labor organizations in the United States weren’t doing: focusing their work on social justice.” After a contract negotiation, Roy and other members of the bargaining committee step down from their roles, and a new team will work to ensure that NYU lives up to its end of the bargain. Diaz hopes other unions, especially graduate unions, will see what NYU graduate workers have accomplished and realize that unions don’t just negotiate contracts, they can also be forces for systemic change. in an organization. However, she knows that in the future the NYU GSOC will need to be aware of what sets them apart from other unionized workers.

“A lot of unionized workers today are working class people, they often don’t have the skills that graduate workers have,” Diaz said. “I think one of the questions that I hope we have, how do we connect our cause to that of other labor movements that don’t have access to the same kind of institution-specific resources that we get from NYU? . ”

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