NYU: Nerds on Strike!

Against the Current, No. 120, January/February 2006

Amanda Plumb

ON NOVEMBER 9, 2005, graduate student employees at New York University (NYU) put down their red pens and picked up their picket signs. After a 2004 ruling by a Bush- appointed majority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the NYU administration seized the opportunity to refuse to recognize and renegotiate with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC)/ UAW Local 2110.

Since the strike began in early November, there has been no business as usual at NYU. Instead of teaching classes, grading papers and conducting research, graduate employees are marching and chanting on the picket lines. Conferences, lectures and alumni events are interrupted with picketing, leafleting and supportive speakers joining the line instead of crossing it.

By the end of the first week, over 650 faculty members requested the union find off-campus spaces for their classes in order to respect the picket lines. Classes are held across Manhattan in parks, union halls, college classrooms, professors’ apartments, cafes and a pool hall. Faculty members sponsored a town hall meeting about the “crisis on campus” and a silent vigil protesting “death of faculty voice.”

Undergraduate students support the strike by wearing GSOC t-shirts, buttons and armbands. Undergraduates join the picket lines and bring cookies and other treats to their teaching assistants on the line. On December 1, members of Graduate Undergraduate Solidarity (GUS) organized a class boycott, student speak-out and march on administration offices.

NYU Denies Rights

GSOC has been at the forefront of the effort to organize graduate employees at private universities. In 2000, the NYU administration challenged the results of GSOC’s recognition election claiming that graduate assistants are not employees protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

In New York University (2000), the NLRB (a majority of whom were appointed by Clinton) unanimously decided that graduate assistantships were employees under the NLRA, giving them the right to form unions. In 2002, GSOC became the first recognized graduate employee union to win a contract at a private university.

Graduate student employees were already organizing on other private university campuses including Penn, Tufts, Columbia, Yale and Brown. University administrations on these campuses appealed regional board decisions that sanctioned bargaining units of graduate assistants. In Brown University, 342 NLRB 42 (2004), a Republican majority of the NLRB reversed the NYU decision, finding graduate assistants are not statutory employees because they are “primarily students.” This summer, when the NYU contract expired, the university administration announced it would refuse to recognize and bargain with the union.
Anticipating that the university would use the Brown ruling as an excuse to undermine the union, GSOC launched a campaign to pressure the university to negotiate. Graduate assistants signed an open letter to show that a majority of grad students support the union. On August 31st, the eve of their contract expiration, 76 graduate assistants and labor leaders (including John Sweeney) were arrested in an act of civil disobedience at a rally attended by hundreds.

At the end of October, GSOC members voted to go on strike for “voluntary” recognition (a labor euphemism for forcing an employer to recognize a union through job actions instead of through government sanctioned elections). As the only private university with a unionized graduate workforce, the outcome of the NYU  strike will set the tone for ongoing organizing campaigns at other private universities where graduate assistants have continued to organize despite the Brown decision.

Corporate U and Job Quality

In part, the growing labor movement in higher education can be attributed to the rise of the corporate university. Henry Steck, a political scientist at the State University of New York, defines the “corporatized university…as an institution that is characterized by processes, decisional criteria, expectations, organizational culture, and operating practices that are taken from, and have their origins in, the modern business corporation.”(1)

Focusing on the bottom line, universities are cutting costs by replacing full-time faculty with a cheaper contingent workforce. Consequently, both the quality of jobs and the quality of education are at risk in corporatized universities. Universities are following a common trend in the U.S. economy—replacing full-time jobs with part-time positions with fewer benefits and job security.

The American Federation of Teachers reported in 2004 that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty make up only 30% of the instructional workforce in postsecondary education. Part-time/adjunct faculty and full-time non-tenure-track faculty compose 35% and 15% of the instructional workforce, respectively. The 260,000 graduate employees across the nation make up the remaining 20% of the postsecondary instructional staff.(2)

A 1999 study of humanities and social sciences classes at Yale revealed that tenure-track faculty taught 30% of the classes, adjuncts taught 30% and graduate assistants taught 40% of the classes.(3) These studies show that the majority of classes taught at universities are taught by a part-time workforce, which includes graduate students.

Graduate programs have been traditionally considered apprenticeships for tenured positions in universities. This is no longer the case. The number of doctorates awarded between 1977 and 1997 increased 38%. At the same time, the number of new full-time faculty has fallen by 3% (AFT, 2004). Consequently, the supply of doctorates is surpassing the demand for new faculty, flooding the academic market.

Graduate students are spending more time earning a degree and have fewer opportunities for tenure-track positions after they graduate. Instead of being an apprentice for a professional position in the academy, graduate students have become contingent workers for our nation’s universities.

Graduate employees organize unions for the same reasons as other workers: for bread and butter issues such as wages and healthcare, as well as having control in their workplaces. Union jobs make higher education accessible and affordable. With a unionized assistantship, graduate students can pay their living expenses while earning free tuition and subsidized healthcare.

Before their first union contract, graduate assistants at NYU were paid as little as $10,000. Their first contract raised our stipends by an average of 40%, to a guaranteed minimum of $19,000. It also provided employer-paid healthcare, paid leave, paid training and a grievance procedure.

Threatening Academic Freedom

As universities have become big businesses, the interests of faculty and the university have been diverging. In NLRB v. Yeshiva University, 444 US 672 (1980), a split Supreme Court found that full-time faculty are not employees under the NLRA, but managerial employees who act in the interest of the employer.

The four justices who dissented in Yeshiva scoffed at the “rose-colored lens through which [the majority of the court] views the governance structure of the modern-day university.” The traditional university model of a “community of scholars,” they argued, has been replaced with “an autonomous administration, which faces the same pressures to cut costs and increase efficiencies that confront any large industrial organization.”

The NYU campaign highlights the divergent interests of faculty and the university administration. Throughout the strike, the NYU administration has continued to ignore departmental autonomy and academic freedom, fueling protest by faculty members, including those who may not have been otherwise supportive of the strike.

According to their website, Faculty Democracy, an organization of over 240 NYU faculty members, formed because the university’s decision to refuse to recognize the union was made “without consulting or acknowledging faculty opinion in any meaningful fashion.”

On the first day of the strike, without permission from the instructors, university administrators added themselves as “instructors” on Blackboard, an online component to classes. This allowed administrators not only access to communication among the class’s professor, teaching assistants and students, but also control over course documents.

In a letter from NYU President John Sexton on December 5, the university gave the strikers an ultimatum: return to work the following week or become ineligible to be rehired for the spring semester. Both the surveillance of online class space and the centralizing of hiring power are affronts to academic freedom and have spurred faculty protest. Over 5,000 faculty members from across the country and abroad signed a letter to President Sexton protesting the university’s union-busting practices.

The outcome of the NYU strike will impact both the graduate unionization movement as well as the quality of jobs and education at NYU. However, Sexton’s letter threatening to blacklist strikers highlights the immediate impact of the strike on the university: “The time has come for the University to insist that the academic needs of its undergraduates be met.”

Classes taught by striking graduate assistants have not met since November 7. As the semester end looms, the impact will intensify with graduate assistants continuing to withhold their labor, this time in the form of students’ grades.


  1.  Steck, Henry. “Corporatization of the University: Seeking Conceptual Clarity” The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science. January, 2003.
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  2.  American Federation of Teachers. “Recognition and Respect: Standards of Good Practice in the Employment of Graduate Employees.” June 2004.
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  3.  Johnson, Benjamin. “The Drain-O of Higher Education: Casual Labor and University Teaching” in  Johnson, Benjamin; Kavanagh, Patrick; and Mattson, Kevin (Eds.).Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement. New York: Routledge, 2003.
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ATC 120, January-February 2006