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.
Without union representation, conditions worsened for graduate students. In 2008 NYU acquired Polytechnic University, where hundreds of graduate student researchers worked with no healthcare for just $10 an hour. And in 2012, while NYU President John Sexton pushed a major expansion plan into Greenwich Village, the university cut healthcare subsidies by 33 percent across the board.
A campus-wide unionization campaign—and the prospects of a reversal of the NLRB decision by an Obama-appointed NLRB—pushed NYU to re-recognize the union (now affiliated with the United Auto Workers) in 2013. But the university stalled on contract negotiation. Students frustrated with the slow pace of change formed Academic Workers for a Democratic Union last summer, and won a majority of seats on the negotiating team this fall. ”We prepared an escalation plan that included meticulous and diligent one-on-one organizing among students, building alliances with faculty and student groups, and public direct actions,” explained Natasha Raheja, a member of AWDU and the GSOC bargaining committee. AWDU shifted tactics from back-room caucusing with the administration to rank-and-file engaged negotiating.
When the AWDU-led committee first sat down with administrators in the fall, they were met with intransigence: “At first they offered us nothing: no dental, just 50 percent of healthcare coverage, a $3 raise for the Poly students…no child care or family benefits,” says Ella Wind. A series of public actions—including the picketing of the library, teach-ins and eventually a strike authorization vote in December—forced NYU to seek a mediator and begin to take the union more seriously.
Union leaders see their struggle as part of a larger confrontation over the values of the university. “This has been a real fight over the distribution of university resources,” says Nantina Vgontzas, a PhD candidate in sociology and AWDU member. Union members point to the NYU’s $300 million surplus, lavish real estate acquisitions, expansion into Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, and multimillion-dollar compensation packages for top administrators as evidence of misplaced priorities. “It’s no secret that NYU operates like a corporation—they brag about it all the time,” says Wind.
Though the deal is historic, the union did fall short on several fronts. They’d initially wanted a shorter contract, so organizers could build momentum for the next round of negotiations. Students like Duvisac also hoped for access to faculty-caliber dental plans; the deal only offers Stu-DENT, a bare-bones plan that offers just two teeth cleanings a year.
The university is, of course, spinning the deal a win for administration and students alike. In a statement NYU Provost David McLaughlin called the process “prolonged and at times difficult,” but pronounced the administration “pleased with this outcome.”
Already, the contract negotiations at NYU are inspiring graduate students on other campuses and putting pressure on administrators. “The example of NYU has been completely transformative,” says Aaron Greenberg, a PhD student at Yale and Chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO-UNITE HERE), which is pushing for university recognition of the right to bargain. “NYU’s success is going to be a huge jolt.” At Columbia University, organizers with Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) expect the news from NYU will ramp up the pressure on the Columbia administration: “We hope [they] learn from NYU and respect our democratic decision to form a union,” said Seth Prins, an organizer with GWC-UAW.
With their victories inspiring grad students across the country, GSOC leaders have no plans to de-escalate. “As long you are relying on your graduate students for your labor—we are going to leverage our power,” says Wind. “That’s a promise.”