NYU was a labor battleground. Now the graduate students are back on strike.


When Marwan Shalaby moved to New York from Egypt in 2019 to start a PhD in engineering. at New York University, he had $700 in his bank account. He thought that would be enough to settle down.

But Mr. Shalaby had to pay the deposit for an apartment, a mattress and winter clothes. After going to the ER with a kitchen injury, he started going into debt.

As he anxiously awaited payment of his first graduate student allowance, which would be $2,500 a month, Mr. Shalaby realized that those checks would barely cover the cost of living in his home. new city. The time and energy he wanted to spend studying for classes was instead spent worrying about his bank account.

“My learning experience wasn’t optimal because my mind was so preoccupied with how I would pay for essentials,” he said.

This week Mr. Shalaby, 28, joined more than a thousand NYU graduate students striking for higher college salaries, among other demands, such as better health care and a change in the school’s relationship with the police department.

During strike, graduate students refrain from professional duties, including adjunct teaching and grading papers, leaving campus in limbo as university and union continue to negotiate new contract terms students.

More than seven years ago, NYU graduate students became the first in the nation to gain voluntary union recognition from a private university. The resulting contract expired in August and the graduate students, represented by the United Auto Workers, spent months in heated negotiations over the terms of its renewal.

At the center of the dispute between the union and the university, among the most expensive in the country, is the demand of graduate students for higher salaries. The union’s organizing committee originally proposed an hourly wage of $46, more than double the current hourly wage for graduate students there, which starts at $20.

The organizing committee has since lowered its proposal to $32 per hour. The university responded with a proposed increase of about 22% over six years, or a $1 increase in the first year of the contract.

NYU leaders argue that graduate students earn more than their counterparts at other schools. They noted that Harvard graduate students, for example, recently entered into a contract that provided an hourly wage of $17.

“This strike should not have happened,” John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, said in an email. “The university has made generous offers in this contract renewal.”

The president of the university sent by e-mail parents of NYU students this week and described the strike as “unwarranted, premature and regrettable.” The email sparked a backlash and a number of jokes on social media from some of the graduating students, many over 30, whose parents received it. (“If I get punished, I still can’t go to work,” Chloe Jones, 26, PhD student, tweeted.)

NYU graduate student organizers said the Harvard contract comparison was inappropriate because of the higher cost of living in New York City. NYU organizers determined their proposed salary using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculatorgiven the constraint that graduate students can only work 20 hours per week.

And while Columbia and Harvard grad students have gone on strike in recent years for their first union contracts, NYU grad students are negotiating a second contract, having settled their first in 2015, and so have raised demands. more ambitious. (Columbia’s strike, which began in March, has stalled while students vote on their contract, which would raise wages for hourly student workers to $20 within three years.)

“A first contract establishes a foundation for future negotiations,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. “In the second contract, the union seeks to broaden and extend its benefits. It is very common for a second contract to be more demanding.

The urgency of the union’s financial demands has been heightened by the pandemic and economic crisis, with the university job market squeezed by hiring freeze.

“They’re trying to bully us into dropping our lower and lower wage proposals,” said Ellis Garey, 28, a union organizer and fourth-year doctoral student. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies at NYU “We finally have thousands of graduate workers on the picket line.”

The crowd that gathered near NYU on Friday, chanting and marching, heard several candidates for city council as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, who called to congratulate the strikers. “If we respect education in this country – if we know how important it is that we provide the best education in the world for our young people,” he said, “it is imperative that we have good teachers remunerated who are treated with respect and dignity”.

Unionization and collective bargaining among graduate students dates back decades in the public sector, which saw its first higher education contract in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But in private schools, whether graduate students should be treated as students or workers has been more contentious. And NYU has long been a battleground for the issue.

The National Labor Relations Board first recognized graduate students’ right to collective bargaining at private universities in 2000, in a case that began at NYU. But the council, whose five members are appointed by the president, had a conservative majority under President George W. Bush. . In a 2004 case at Brown University, the board reversed its decision, leaving private graduate student unions without federal protection.

The board has wavered on the subject since the White House changed hands. Although Republicans still hold a majority until at least the end of the summer, the board said in March it would withdraw a proposed rule on the Trump-era issue, once again paving the way. students graduating from private schools to organize.

According to to research from the Hunter Center.

The question of whether graduate students should be classified as students or employees is more urgent than ever, Herbert said, as the federal government considers how to classify gig workers and what protections are afforded to them. At work.

Many private university leaders have traditionally argued that the primary obligation of graduate students is to get their education, not their job. But NYU’s striking graduate students say there is no distinction between their work and their studies – and that the university could not function without their paid work.

“When I do my research, it benefits the university,” Ms Garey said. “I speak at conferences, I organize workshops within my department, I publish articles, I publish translations. All of these things are things that faculty members do as part of their pay.

Pay isn’t the only issue driving a wedge between NYU graduate student organizers and the university. The graduate students also asked the university to refrain from calling the New York Police Department except when required by law or when a violent crime has occurred. They don’t want the police to be called in case of vandalism, for example, citing risk people of color and other vulnerable students.

Graduate students also made pandemic-specific demands, including asking for $500 payment to teaching assistants for their efforts to transition to distance learning.

Virgilio Urbina Lazardi, 28, fourth-year doctoral student in sociology. student, had planned to spend last spring polishing a paper for submission to an academic journal. He had to drop the project so he could double the number of hours he spent teaching as an assistant. The professor he helped was struggling with Zoom, so Mr. Lazardi made an appointment to visit the professor’s home and install his technology.

“There has been a lot of added stress this semester and it has fallen disproportionately on me without additional compensation or recognition,” Mr. Lazardi said.

This week, all of the tasks that graduate students are paid for — scheduling classes, emailing students, arranging office hours — were halted.

Some union organizers approached the moment as an opportunity to teach their undergraduates about the broader struggle for student-worker rights.

Arundhati Velamur, 33, who is getting her doctorate. in education, spent the semester leading a course on teaching geometry. She opened her first class with a discussion of the book “Flatland,” an 1800s satire on Victorian social hierarchy, which imagines a fictional world populated by shapes whose power is determined by the number of sides they have; a hexagon, for example, would be more powerful than a square.

Ms. Velamur went back to the text to explain why she was skipping class for the strike — because in NYU’s “Flatland” type hierarchy, Ms. Velamur said, she and her peers were fighting for more power.

She told her students in an email that she would not be able to teach until an agreement was reached, and smiled when she received their response: Her undergraduates spent their time in class thinking about ways to support the union.


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