When Arundhati Velamur was in the fourth year of her education PhD program at New York University, she often had conversations with her colleagues about how their department seemed to only hire external candidates for faculty positions. “It was something we kept talking about, and a lot of us were wondering how we could bring this issue up to our department,” said Velamur, who went to the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “So we went to the graduate student union and asked how they could help us.”
New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) quickly responded, putting Velamur and her colleagues in touch with their departmental steward, the first line of contact for members with grievances, and helping them learn more about the ongoing efforts to negotiate a new contract for graduate student workers. “At this point, I was already seeing emails from GSOC in my inbox, but the help with the department organizing helped show me that this organization could really effect change on campus,” Velamur said.
In 2002, NYU’s graduate union, which is associated with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, became the first graduate union to be officially recognized by a private university after a semester-long strike, and since then union organizers have been increasing the rights of graduate workers by fighting for increased stipends and employee benefits for graduate workers. None of these worker benefits have come easily; the union has never been able to negotiate with the university without the looming threat of a strike.
The authorization of a strike after 10 months of trying to negotiate a new contract with the university came as no surprise to union members. After a three-week strike, the graduate student union and the administration came to a tentative agreement on a historic contract that provided workers with a living wage of $26 an hour and close to complete health insurance coverage. Additionally, it held the university to a promise to investigate the abolition of cops from NYU’s campus.
“Participating in the strike last spring reminded me of how much the union has won over the last 20 years,” Leandra Barrett Diaz, a GSOC unit representative said. “And nothing we’ve gotten out of NYU has been out of NYU’s benevolence, it’s always been graduate workers agitating, every step of the way.” The strike that ended up making headlines was not organized overnight. It took close to a year of preparation and outreach efforts by union leaders to ensure that a large majority of members of GSOC were ready and willing to join the strike effort.
Union leadership had been personally reaching out to fellow members since June to learn what workers wanted in their new contract. Using phone and text banking, they were able to connect interested members to someone who could have a more personalized conversation about what the union could do for them. The effects of this kind of outreach were clear: In March, 1,200 graduate student workers signed a petition asking the university to stop stonewalling negotiations. When the union decided to call a vote for authorizing a strike, the number of supporters only increased, with 96 percent of union members voting in favor. “In each stage of organizing, leading up to the strike, we brought in new waves of people who were interested in learning more about our efforts,” Colin Vanderburg, a member of the union’s spring bargaining committee, said.
Once a strike starts, it’s hard for unions to predict what will happen next. Pressure mounts, and in some cases the strike fails because the union is unable to present a united front, which institutions capitalize on. Just days before NYU graduate workers were set to strike, Columbia University’s graduate student union paused their strike because of disagreements among student workers. At NYU, the militant commitment to open bargaining sessions where anyone could watch the committee negotiate with administrators helped avoid situations where rank-and-file members felt alienated from the leadership team. These open sessions would draw large crowds; Vanderburg said that 200 people once showed up to watch them negotiate.
“Leadership was on the strike line every day, and if they weren’t, it was because they were in arbitration,” said Will Goodwin, a rank-and-file member of NYU GSOC. “It wasn’t like some lawyer I never met before was fighting for my rights—it was people I knew.” Once the strike began, GSOC’s communications team took to social media to make sure that people were aware of what the union was fighting for. Their social media strategy emphasized the popularity of the strike by highlighting the support they received from other unions and progressive politicians, like Bernie Sanders. Abigail Manville, a member of GSOC’s communications team, said that this helped make it clear that the strike was not popular with just a few members but with a majority of the community.
“We kept repeating over and over throughout the strike that our working conditions are undergraduates’ learning conditions,” Manville said. “So if you’re willing to pay top dollar for your education, you should care about how your TAs are being treated.” The communication’s team also emphasized the ways that NYU’s administration was trying to undermine the union’s efforts. Some of their most popular tweets and TikTok videos discussed the ways in which official NYU communication e-mails to parents were misrepresenting the state of contract negotiations to parents of graduate student workers, and even how NYU’s chief spokesperson fell asleep during bargaining sessions. These instances ended up in national newspapers, drawing even more attention to GSOC’s cause. NYU declined multiple requests for comment on the strike.
“I think that maybe in academia specifically, and certainly at universities, there’s a sort of discomfort towards any kind of sign of class conflict within the institution because there’s this image of the university as an enlightened liberal institution,” Vanderburg said. The graduate student union prides itself on their commitment to bolstering social justice issues during their contract negotiations. From the start, the union had been asking NYU to consider banning cops from their campus, citing the threat that law enforcement poses to those from marginalized groups. In their new contract, the university has promised to address this matter as a health and safety issue and to form a committee to investigate the topic further. While it isn’t a commitment to ban law enforcement from campus, Velamur thinks that the creation of this committee means that the union will be able to continue to push for this measure and hold NYU accountable to thoroughly investigating the topic.
“When I first joined GSOC, what was amazing to me was that the activists were not just looking to ‘stick it’ to NYU,” Velamur said. “They were interested in doing something that a lot of labor organizations in the US were not doing: centering their work around social justice.” After a contract negotiation, Velamur and other members of the bargaining committee are stepping back from their roles, and a new team will work to make sure NYU holds up their end of the bargain. Diaz hopes that other unions, especially graduate unions will see what graduate workers at NYU have accomplished and realize that unions are not just about negotiating contracts–they can also be forces for systemic change in an organization. However, she knows that going forward, NYU GSOC will have to be aware of what makes them different from other union workers.
“Many union workers today are people from working-class backgrounds, they often don’t have the credentials that graduate workers have,” Diaz said. “I think one of the questions I hope that we have, how we connect our cause to that of other labor movements who do not have access to the same kind of institution specific resources that we get from NYU.”