What we can learn from campus labor struggles at NYU.
NYU’s infamous cost of attendance and incessant tuition increases, designed to wring every last drop out of a battered student body align perfectly with its status as one of New York’s biggest property owners. Ironically, or perhaps it is precisely due to those facts, NYU is also home to significant labor organizing efforts through history and now.
The graduate workers union went on strike and won a historic contract last year, making headlines and inspiring many other graduate students across the country to demand more. NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee has been consistently supported by other unions organizing for workers on campus. The biggest takeaway from these historic efforts is that solidarity cannot be understated when our struggles intertwine.
Here’s a power map of academic labor at NYU, which can provide insight into the future of campus labor organizing everywhere.
On July 9, 2002, Adjuncts Come Together won their representation election and became ACT-UAW Local 7902 — the first NYU union. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) had signed onto a letter appealing to the university on behalf of the union.
Former NYU professors Martha Bordman and Sylvia Gonzalez had started organizing the union in their department. The day after the union filed for recognition in May 2002, a job listing for 13 full-time positions in Bordman and Gonzalez’s department appeared in The New York Times.
“That’s called union busting,” said Gonzalez.
“It’s to eat up the jobs and put the fear of God into people,” said Bordman.
Bordman was fired for her organizing efforts — under the flimsy excuse of a non-collegial attitude. She countered with a lawsuit for wrongful termination, and was persuaded to take a settlement.
An anonymous former professor noted that the union was not allowed at new employee meetings as recently as this decade.
Cate Fallon, union unit chair and adjunct instructor, spoke on the struggle of simply finding adjuncts to inform them of their options and the benefits they qualify for. NYU requires a record of employment for benefits — such as health insurance, which requires one year of recorded employment for eligibility — but the university does not make any effort to keep its internal files updated. When pressured, the university claims that its systems are slow.
“It’s the 21st century,” Fallon said.
Adjuncts also have to prove that they have no other avenues for health insurance in order to qualify for NYU coverage.
Other employees face similar obstacles by the university in their struggles.
Contract Faculty United-UAW, also under Local 7902, is currently fighting for recognition from NYU.
The former professor said adjuncts and full-time faculty were often put in opposition to one other, mainly because of job security.
Clinical associate professor and organizing committee member Elisabeth Fay acknowledged the friction, and added that contract faculty do face similar precarities. Their three- or five-year contracts are not renewable, and faculty must submit “extensive reappointment dossiers including all of our teaching evaluations, a record of our research contributions to professional fields, and service work we did for the university.”
Fay says the university’s reappointment process leads to extreme levels of overwork and pits non-tenured faculty against tenured faculty, who have more stability. Hiring committees put contract faculty in direct comparison as “less expensive, equally productive in many of the same ways, aware of their own disposability, and more likely to be compliant and not complain.” This exploitation contributes to how quickly the number of non-tenured full-time faculty positions at NYU shot up.
In 2017, contract faculty organized in earnest, both based on concerns such as salary compression against living costs — especially as employees are ostensibly ranked on merit and granted an increase of usually less than 2% — and following an incident where 10 full-time faculty members were fired during a department restructuring and termination policy was not followed. Now, they have a majority in signed cards, and are hoping for voluntary recognition.
Tenured faculty — that contract faculty are often directed to blame for their plights — also have frustrations with the university administration.
Until 2014, if private university employees had a faculty senate, they were categorized as management under labor law and technically could not unionize. Early on, contract faculty had to decide between organizing for a faculty senate or a union. The university was willing to approve a faculty senate, but not a union, for obvious reasons.
Fay said the contract faculty senate is an advisory body that makes suggestions the university often doesn’t follow.
Some tenured and tenure-track faculty had then opposed the creation of a contract faculty senate because they viewed it as a move by the university to prevent unionization. NYU latched onto the disagreement and told contract faculty that it was because tenured faculty were elitist and couldn’t stand the thought of non-tenured faculty having equal footing.
Rebecca Karl, professor of history and president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors asserts that was not their reasoning for opposition and is glad they now have the opportunity to work with and support the contract faculty.
Karl described AAUP as “a vital voice of advocacy for faculty affairs that are often in antagonism to what the university wishes to us to do.”
She’s assisting with the formation of Columbia University’s AAUP chapter, which is coming into existence because of the Student Workers of Columbia strike. Relatedly, Columbia departments sent out notices to NYU last semester looking for scabs to replace striking workers. The grad workers’ strike made it clear that tenured professors needed to take a stance.
Tenured faculty at private universities do not have legal protections to unionize, so Karl and the AAUP hope “to be allies and advocates for those who are fighting” the university, and do not have the same security that they do. These attitudes of solidarity and support strengthen the labor movement.
Karl said, “one of the really great things that has happened is the cross-campus organizing and the ways in which people are reaching across what otherwise have been very distinct sectors.”
Last November OPEIU Local 153, a union representing non-teaching staff at the Tandon School of Engineering won and ratified a contract including childcare subsidies and portable tuition assistance. Tandon was a previously separate school before it was absorbed into NYU, so workers at Tandon in Brooklyn are mostly not covered by existing unions on the Manhattan campus. Before and during the weeks of bargaining, representatives of OPEIU met with other campus union representatives in meetings facilitated by NYU Law student organization, Law Students for Economic Justice.
LSEJ has facilitated meetings between labor unions and unionizing efforts on campus, including UCATS Local 3882 representing clerical and technical staff, and public safety sergeants who recently attempted to unionize under Local One — which already covered security officers. After much consulting, advice, and support from other campus unions, the sergeants successfully signed a contract with benefits they needed.
Fay said she was brought into those meetings by Stephen Rechner, president of UCATS Local 3882, and “there’s a lot to learn from other workers’ struggles with the administration.”
The university has a vested interest in creating animosity and amplifying each group’s differences in terms of benefits, status, or job security. But these mutual exchanges are a way to combat that.
Many organizations — non-academic and academic alike — feel encouraged by the shared support and solidarity. Rechner and many others have pointed out that there’s no university without teaching or non-teaching staff. Reaching across unions has been a positive help in not only verbal or public support for one another, but also in terms of comparing contracts, sharing skills and experiences, and making connections that were previously thought impossible. Whether due to manufactured conflict or perceived insurmountable boundaries in the past, there is a lot of interest in maintaining these relationships and building a strong presence of labor at NYU.
Many undergraduate students are employed by the university on some level. Whether as RAs, TAs, office assistants, or more, it is one more reason students need to pay attention and participate in labor organizing on campus.
“I think undergraduates have a tremendous amount of power if they choose to use it to demand that everyone on their campus is treated fairly,” said Fay.
NYU YDSA helped organize during the GSOC strike last year, and solidarity pledge numbers rose alongside the levels of energy and excitement about making change at the university.
2021 was a big year for campus labor organizing, and there are many ongoing campaigns and efforts looking to continue that trend in 2022.
Campuses are a significant site of organizing. Unions, especially those with units in universities, are modifying comms strategies and adjusting for less orthodox factors like part-time workers out of necessity. Rank-and-file members join, push for more, and Fallon said these new members are some of the strongest supporters of advocacy and collective action.
YDSA members may not be attending universities with active or robust graduate student worker organizing yet, but as students look for the next rally, starting conversations with faculty and other worker union members on campus is undoubtedly worthwhile.
How many of my classes have been taught by adjuncts? Is my professor non-tenure track or tenured? How exactly does your tuition line the pockets of administrators? How might my interests align with those of faculty? Fallon, Fay, and Karl hope that these are some questions students might ask themselves as they consider the landscape of labor in higher education.