When Sara Duvisac, a PhD candidate at New York University, slipped on ice and busted three front teeth, it cost $6,000 to put her mouth back together. Her NYU health plan did not include dental, so Duvisac drained her savings. With no money to fund her summer research in India, she instead took a second summer job to make ends meet.
“It was a pretty traumatic fall, and not having dental coverage only added to the trauma,” she told The Nation.
On Monday, Duvisac rallied with a crowd of over fifty graduate students outside the negotiating room as NYU’s Graduate Students Organizing Committee (GSOC)—the only union for private-school graduate workers in the country—struck a deal for higher wages, expanded healthcare (including dental) and extended benefits for the nearly 1,000 students represented by the union.
In the new five-year contract, the university must pay 90 percent of health premiums for graduate student workers without coverage, provide free basic dental insurance, raise PhD compensation by 4 percent, and increase wages for students at the Polytechnic Engineering campus from $10 to $15 an hour, with a promised $20 wage in five years. The university will also set aside funds for childcare and family healthcare—two new benefits that are essential for students with families and single parents.
Union leaders are pleased. “With this contract, everyone gets something,” says Ella Wind, a member of the GSOC bargaining committee. Wind is a leader of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a reform caucus that won a majority of seats on the bargaining committee last fall and mobilized rank-and-file members to push for a generous contract.
NYU’s Graduate Student Union has been at the center of student-labor organizing for the past fifteen years. In 2001, NYU graduate workers became the first to unionize at a private university. The victory came after a hard fought battle for recognition—the university intimidated union allies on faculty, and students eventually took their case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB sided with the graduate students in 2002 and within a year, the union won major concessions from the administration including a 40 percent increase in stipends and an across-the-board reduction in healthcare costs.
Unionization at NYU inspired graduate movements at private schools across the country. At Brown, Penn, Columbia and Tufts, students began organizing unionization drives. But when Brown organizers brought their case before the Republican majority National Labor Relations Board in 2004, it struck down the NYU precedent. Then in 2005, NYU’s administration refused to renew graduate workers’ contracts and stopped recognizing the union; momentum for graduate student organizing stalled nationwide.