On April 26, New York University’s graduate student workers went on strike for increased hourly wages, better health coverage, and fewer cops on campus. With more than 2,200 graduate student workers on strike, academic life ground to a halt. Then, after three weeks of striking, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the United Auto Workers Union (GSOC-UAW) announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with NYU’s administration.
In 2015, GSOC-UAW became the first graduate student union in the country at a private university to form a collective bargaining agreement.
In 2015, GSOC-UAW became the first graduate student union in the country at a private university to form a collective bargaining agreement. That contract expired last year, and the union began negotiations with the university for a new contract in June 2020.
“We are lucky at NYU to have a very strong union and we had a strong first contract,” Tova Benjamin, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at NYU, told me in a recent phone interview, “but that strong first contract wasn’t going to stay strong if we didn’t fight for all the things we were fighting for in the past few months.”
The NYU strike came at a fortuitous time for unionized graduate workers across the country. As the National Labor Relations Board gradually gets restaffed by Biden appointees, a proposed Trump-era law that would have disqualified graduate students from being considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, has been withdrawn. This withdrawal coincided with the Graduate Workers of Columbia University going on strike for three weeks, beginning on March 15. Just days later, GSOC-UAW called its strike authorization vote at NYU.
The legality of graduate student unions has bounced back and forth several times over the past twenty years. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students in private schools could unionize. It reversed this decision just four years later. Depending on whatever the last ruling of the NLRB was—and on whether a majority of the board members have been appointed by a Democrat or a Republican—graduate worker unions are either rushing to unionize or retreating under a board that favors the needs of employers.
Under a Biden presidency, the needs of labor are finally being addressed after a long hiatus. As a result, graduate worker unions are now organizing with a renewed sense of legitimacy.
In the opening stages of negotiations with NYU’s administration, the union opened with a bid for a $46 hourly wage (calculated using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator), double the current lowest wage for graduate workers, which is $20. After lowering their request to $32, the university countered with a raise of 22 percent over the first six years of the contract, with a $1 raise for master’s students and a $2 raise for Ph.D. students in the first year.
This bid was refused by the negotiating committee, as the tiered wage system would pit master’s students against Ph.D. students. NYU countered with a $1 wage increase for all students, lowering their initial bid. In this manner, the administration rebuffed the union for months.
Just prior to the first day of the strike, NYU sent a letter to the entire community, including the parents of all undergraduates, calling the strike inconvenient and misguided.
After almost a year of stalled negotiations, the committee conducted a strike authorization vote, with 96 percent of the bargaining unit voting yes to a strike. For three weeks, the NYU graduate worker strike garnered national attention with a well-organized and well-attended strike that included extensive press coverage, along with a message of solidarity from Senator Bernie Sanders on the importance of graduate worker organizing to the larger labor movement. Students and faculty members—as well as members of local advocacy groups like Democratic Socialists of America—attended the picket in front of NYU’s iconic Bobst Library near Washington Square Park.
Just prior to the first day of the strike, NYU sent a letter to the entire community, including the parents of all undergraduates, calling the strike inconvenient and misguided, and the union’s demands unreasonable.
Leandra Barrett, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at NYU, told me in a recent phone interview that NYU’s letter was “in and of itself a dumpster fire PR move.” She added that it fit into “a broader pattern of NYU working really hard to divide community members against the union—even though throughout the strike, before the strike, after the strike, [and] on the picket line we had support from members of the NYU community and beyond.”
GSOC-UAW had been speaking to the membership and strategizing for an entire year before the contract negotiations began. Prior to the pandemic, union stewards scheduled in-person meetings with departments to ask the graduate workers which of their needs were not being met. Throughout the summer of 2020, union organizers logged hundreds of hours in one-on-one calls, phone banking the entire bargaining unit.
The rank-and-file organizers I spoke with point to this deep organizing as the key to their successful strike. Having mobilized the entire bargaining unit ahead of time, management’s solidarity-breaking measures floundered.
On May 14, GSOC-UAW announced that they had hammered out a tentative agreement with the administration. In the second week of the strike, as the grading period (a time when graduate workers’ labor is direly needed) drew closer, NYU finally came back to the bargaining table.
Their tentative agreement includes a 50 percent wage increase over the course of the contract, and a 30 percent increase in the first year, raising pay to $26 an hour. They have also agreed to expand health care benefits and mandate sanctuary protections for undocumented students from ICE and other government agencies.
“Never underestimate your power,” Leandra Barrett told me. After years of organizing and three weeks of striking, NYU’s graduate workers are close to ratifying a contract that could set new standards for the movement and expand the limits of what graduate student labor can fight for.