- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
There are over 2,200 graduate workers at New York University. As of Monday, they are on strike.
The work stoppage began after what GSOC-UAW, the graduate workers’ union, describes as nine months of stonewalling at the bargaining table by the university administration. The union delivered a petition to NYU at the start of last month, urging management to “take contract negotiations seriously and make meaningful counter-proposals” or face a strike. The school chose a strike.
Bargaining began in August of 2020, and distance between the sides remains: sticking points for the strikers include the administration’s refusal to offer more than a $1-an-hour wage increase and its refusal to bargain over GSOC’s health and safety proposals, which include demands barring NYPD officers’ from entering campus buildings without a warrant and mandating that NYU no longer contract with the NYPD for events. In a letter that went out to some of the strikers’ parents, NYU president Andrew Hamilton calls the strike “unwarranted, untimely and regrettable” and advocates for a mediator to join the process.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Dylan Iannitelli, a sixth-year PhD student in the biology department and a GSOC shop steward; Leandra Barrett, a fourth-year PhD candidate in social and cultural analysis and a rank-and-file GSOC member; and Colin Vanderburg, a teaching assistant in the English department and a GSOC bargaining committee member. They discussed administration stonewalling, the work of building toward a strike, and GSOC’s picket lines — both physical and virtual. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the workers interviewed said their mother had received President Hamilton’s letter, but upon trying to confirm this, that worker could not find the email. The letter has become a point of contention, with some strikers angry that the school pleaded its case to their parents, as well as to the parents of undergraduates. NYU says there is nothing unusual about the list of people who received the letter. GSOC calls the letter “an unveiled attempt to pit parents of students against striking grad workers.”
I want to ask about the letter NYU’s president sent to some strikers’ parents. Obviously, you aren’t children — many strikers have children of their own — so parents receiving communication from your employer has annoyed some grad workers. But the letter argues the administration’s case, which seems like a means of breaking the support you have from undergraduates, who will now hear NYU’s line on the strike from their parents.
A lot of us were incredulous that NYU would do this. It seems to have been haphazard — not every grad workers’ parents received the email. But NYU prefers to treat us as students, or petulant children, rather than as workers. There’s a long history of NYU exploiting a specious distinction between “student” and “worker” status. This is an insulting, absurd example of that.
What led to the strike, and what are the key sticking points?
As early as fall of 2019, we began holding contract campaign meetings and forming working groups, open to all of our members, to begin discussing ideas for what we wanted to see in our contract. From the beginning, one of the key issues has been a significantly increased wage for hourly workers. The current minimum in our contract is $20 an hour. The majority of hourly workers at NYU are master’s students who, in addition to working many hours for the university, also pay sky-high tuition and fees. So in tandem with our hourly raise demands, we’ve been pushing for tuition remission for master’s students, which has been a nonstarter for NYU — we’re currently proposing 40 percent tuition remission for grad workers.
We’re fighting for 100 percent coverage of health care premiums. Under our current contract, grad workers in union positions receive 90 percent coverage of premiums. But we have a byzantine system whereby grad workers in many cases have to apply to have that 90 percent refunded. That’s a huge, needless administrative burden on both students and NYU itself. That seems like a simple demand, but it’s one on which NYU has given no ground.
We’re also seeking partial coverage for out-of-pocket costs. We’ve demanded NYU not permit NYPD officers in campus buildings without a permit, and the creation of sanctuary protections against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When you say the administration is stonewalling, do you mean they aren’t bargaining in good faith, that they aren’t presenting counterproposals, or something else?
In so many cases, they’ve refused to respond. There have been no counterproposals. Tuition remission is one example, but just about all of the proposals that fall outside the scope of mandatory subjects of bargaining, they refuse to acknowledge. There’s been no engagement directly on the demands, for example, about barring NYPD from campus buildings, although we did win an agreement from them for a side letter to form a health and safety committee to discuss student concerns around NYPD on campus, which we think is a significant step forward and represents an unequivocal acknowledgment on NYU’s part that policing is a health and safety issue for NYU students and workers. That’s only come from months of pressure and bargaining.
Hourly wages is one of the more egregious examples. Back in August or September, they proposed a tiered wage system, where PhD-student hourly workers would be given a $22 minimum wage, so a $2 raise, while master’s students would receive a $1 raise, so $21 an hour. We rejected this as a matter of both principle and strategy — we don’t want to accept any tiered benefits or pay rates in our contract. In response, in February or March, they dropped the proposal and instead offered both PhD and master’s student hourly workers $21 an hour, i.e., they dropped to the lower of the two tiers. So we’ve made significant movement on our hourly wage proposals, and NYU has not budged and, in a sense, has stepped backward.
The unanimity of GSOC’s strike authorization vote, with a 96 percent yes vote, is impressive. How did you build that consensus?
In the UAW, a strike authorization vote has to pass by a two-thirds majority for a strike to be authorized, but in reality, it has to be almost unanimous to have a strong strike. So, how do you build into that? We did a public, majority petition, in order to have one-on-one conversations with grad workers across the entire university. The aim was, firstly, to inform them about their union and the proposals on the table, and to bring them on board. If they haven’t been able to attend our open bargaining sessions, it’s a time to explain what bargaining has looked like and the ways that NYU has been stalling and stonewalling and refusing to bring counterproposals for months on end. Then, we ask them to sign the petition and tell them that the petition will only be released if a majority of workers sign on to it. That was a huge step in us having confidence in what the result would be going into the strike authorization vote.
We’ve been organizing virtually for over a year now, and outreach took place over the phone and on Zoom. We had hundreds of phone banking shifts to talk to people about the petition and, more generally, bargaining. Holding open bargaining sessions has been instrumental in bringing people in too — the experience of witnessing, even on Zoom, the dismissal and condescension that we face at the bargaining table is radicalizing and mobilizing. So, our base of activists and mobilized members has expanded enormously in the course of the pandemic — which itself has also radicalized and politicized many people. All of which is to say that while we haven’t been able to do what we normally would, which is in-person walkthroughs in our departments, we’ve found substitutes. We may have mounted just as strong a campaign as we would’ve without the pandemic.
This might be one of the first contracts that NYU enters where we are not the only unionized set of graduate workers. At a private university, that was certainly the case when GSOC made its first contract in the 2000s and then again in 2013. For those unions who are moving forward after the first contract, one lesson to learn from GSOC is the need for active participation in worker life between contracts. In my past four years at NYU, I’ve always known who my steward is and who I can go to if there’s something I need to think through with regard to my working conditions. GSOC also creates spaces for deliberation, debate, and education. Before COVID, GSOC would gather interested members to learn the articles of our contract and what they mean for rank-and-file members. I didn’t have the capacity to be a steward or one of the more active union organizers, but because of other people’s work, I always knew my rights and to whom I could reach out.
We’re speaking on day two of the strike. How is the physical picket line, and are there remote components of the strike?
There are virtual picket lines and we have an in-person picket line every weekday from 10 AM to 2 PM in front of Bobst Library; my voice is hoarse from chanting there today. We had a very strong turnout, with a huge line of people spanning the south side of Washington Square Park, and it was beautiful. In addition to a great number of our members, there are undergraduate supporters, faculty supporters, and members from UCATS, the NYU clerical workers’ union. There are DJs, comedians; Dianne Morales, the mayoral candidate, spoke yesterday. We’re angry, but there’s also a feeling of strength and joy.
I attended the virtual picket today. Unlike Zoom, which is just boxes with people, one of our members illustrated a cartoon Topia world in which you can walk around. When you get close to other users, you can hear them speaking. Today, I virtually walked toward one of my fellow rank-and-file members in California and talked to her about the strike. It has a space to learn about the demands, as well as a video explaining how academic workers are related to the larger labor movement. And there’s a traditional Zoom, which is a relay of the speeches and chants on the Bobst picket line.
I’m also told that there’s a good chance that a certain socialist senator from Vermont will be joining the virtual picket on Friday to give a speech.
It’s inspiring to be part of a wave of graduate and even undergraduate worker organizing. Undergraduate teaching workers at Kenyon College are on strike for recognition. Grad workers at Illinois State University had a strike authorization vote that was 98 percent in favor. Grad workers at the University of New Mexico are fighting for recognition. And there’s the Columbia strike in our local, Local 2110. We’re in solidarity with all of those student-workers.
It’s an era of renewed austerity, but it’s hitting unevenly across universities. There were concerns that the pandemic was going to decimate NYU’s budget, but I’ve been told NYU is in better financial condition than it was before the pandemic. Other institutions, especially public universities, are not in similar shape. Higher education is already so precaritized, so dependent on the labor of not only graduate students, but adjunct professors, lecturers, and other nontenure-track faculty, and that will likely only worsen without unions. But support for unions is higher than it’s been in a long time, and people across so many sectors, including higher education, are recognizing the power of collective organizing and rank-and-file mobilization, and that a union is the best protection against the threat of austerity and precarious labor.
My reading of the struggles of various other universities, particularly other private and/or elite colleges and universities, is that it’s clear that the administration of each wants to pit us against one another. But we see through the administration’s attempt to sow divisions, including divisions within our own university, such as between master’s and doctoral students who are workers, or across graduate workers at other campuses in New York City — say, between NYU and Columbia. We saw this strategy in President Hamilton’s letter to the broader NYU community yesterday, which made facile comparisons to the wages at a place like Harvard in an attempt to characterize our demands as unreasonable, as if New York City isn’t the most expensive city in the country.
The landscape of higher education across the country is unequal, both between private and public and between elite institutions and nonelite institutions. In this moment of austerity, when NYU is doing fine, it’s an opportunity for our graduate workers to be a standard-bearer and unite with workers, whether it’s at Harvard, Columbia, or Illinois State. We’re stronger together.
Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched upon yet?
Our struggle, like every labor struggle, is part of a larger fight. The university as an institution depends on the labor of so many different kinds of workers, from food-service workers and janitorial staff, to clerical workers and low-level administrators, to graduate students to teaching assistants and course assistants, to adjunct faculty, and so many others. However much those workers’ experience and conditions may differ, we share an employer and an interest in building the strongest, most democratic labor movement that we can.
Drawing on the Chicago Teachers Union, we say that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. It’s also true that our working conditions are the working conditions of other NYU employees. We are committed to a social justice vision of unionism — it’s in our bylaws — and in this contract, we’re pushing to expand the scope and the ambition of what unions do, what unions are for, and what contract bargaining and strikes can encompass. This informs, for example, our demands around the NYPD and sanctuary from ICE. We are not only fighting for ourselves but for the communities that we belong to and work and live within.