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Spring 01
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
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NYU Recognizes Graduate Student Union: Implications for Campus Diversity
David Tritelli, Guest Editor, Diversity Digest, and Editorial Associate, AAC&U

On April 2, 2001 New York University (NYU) became the first private university in the U.S. to bargain with a teaching assistants union. The union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW), represents approximately 1,300 graduate assistants who teach the majority of undergraduate courses at NYU. Last fall, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that graduate assistants are employees with collective bargaining rights and ruled that NYU had to bargain with the union.

NYU's decision to recognize the graduate assistants union rather than to pursue further legal appeals is likely to encourage campaigns at other private universities. Although another private university may elect to fight the NLRB decision in federal court, there is little doubt that the contract negotiations underway between GSOC-UAW and NYU will set an important precedent. Among the issues at stake in these historic contract negotiations is the way in which private universities and graduate employee unions will work together to promote campus diversity.

Diversity is a core issue for the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers union (UAW), which represents more teaching assistants and other academic student employees than any other union in the country--more than 15,000 nationwide. The UAW has a very strong track record in winning contracts that ensure broad protections against employment discrimination and strong sexual harassment protections. The UAW also won the first contract in the U.S. to provide paid domestic partner healthcare benefits. In addition to improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions for graduate employees, GSOC-UAW seeks contract provisions prohibiting discrimination and sexual harassment as well as a grievance procedure with an outside arbitrator whose decision is legally binding.

Moreover, GSOC-UAW proposes to strengthen NYU's commitment to diversity and intends to negotiate for "Affirmative action policies that reflect a multi-cultural society, within a diverse and democratic University." Indeed, diversity is among the union's top priorities. According to its Web site, GSOC-UAW pledges to "work for specific improvements in the diversity of NYU" (See http://members.aol.com/gsocuaw/ourissues.html).

Other UAW-affiliated graduate employee unions have successfully negotiated contracts that include strong affirmative action statements. For example, the current contract between the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO-UAW) and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst includes the following provision: "There shall be a committee, with three members appointed by the Administration, three by GEO, and undergraduate student representatives, which shall make recommendations to the Administration about ways in which to educate undergraduate students about diversity on campus, particularly as it relates to the diversity of TAs [Teaching Assistants] and TOs [Teaching Associates] and related issues of harassment" (See http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~geo/contract.pdf). In contract negotiations with NYU, GSOC-UAW has proposed a joint union/university affirmative action committee with paid positions for graduate students.

One of the implications of the successful unionization of graduate students at private universities is that it renders inevitable the unionization of adjunct faculty. Indeed, an organizing campaign is already underway at NYU, where adjuncts comprise approximately 70 percent of the faculty. Adjuncts Come Together (NYU ACT-UAW) hopes to follow on the success of the graduate assistants and to bargain with the university over the terms of adjunct employment. Together with giving academic workers a voice and a place at the table in negotiating the conditions of academic work in private universities, academic unions' demonstrated commitment to diversity promises to make unionization a welcome feature of U.S. higher education in the 21st century.

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Group of NYU students sitting outside