Graduate students who assist professors with teaching and research may not seem like typical workers, but more than 1,000 such assistants petitioned New York University on Monday to recognize a union that would represent their interests.
The school’s officials signaled they would not recognize such a union, which would be the only union of teaching assistants in the nation at a private university.
But with Monday’s move, N.Y.U.’s 1,600 graduate assistants are seeking to persuade the National Labor Relations Board, now dominated by President Obama’s appointees, to reverse a 2004 decision that found that graduate teaching assistants at private universities are essentially students, not workers, and thus do not have a right to unionize and bargain for a contract.
On Monday, a delegation of graduate assistants and officials of the United Auto Workers— joined by Congressman Jerrold L. Nadler and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn— met with N.Y.U. officials and presented a letter from the American Arbitration Association certifying that a majority of the school’s graduate assistants had petitioned for a union.
“If you work, you should be treated as a worker,” Ms. Quinn said. “These are people who provide important services to N.Y.U.”
Organizers said that more than 1,000 teaching and research assistants had signed cards saying that they wanted to join the United Auto Workers, which seeks to organize many white-collar workers.
“We want a union because we perform essential services to the university and we want to have a democratic say in wages and benefits and conditions,” said Kari Hensley, a third-year Ph.D. student in media, culture and communications who teaches several courses. “This would give us more security and stability in the workplace so that things don’t change at the university’s whim.”
Ms. Hensley was one of 70 demonstrators outside N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library on Monday who chanted, popped balloons and held signs saying, “Respect Our Majority.”
In 2000, a majority of N.Y.U.’s graduate assistants voted to join the U.A.W., and two years later, they became the first such group at a private university to sign a union contract with their school’s administration. The four-year accord raised stipends by nearly 40 percent, improved health benefits and paid the assistants extra if their work took more than 20 hours a week.
After the labor board’s 2004 ruling took away their right to unionize and bargain for a contract, the assistants were unable to persuade N.Y.U. to sign a new contract.
Following Monday’s meeting, N.Y.U. officials gave the graduate assistants scant encouragement. “The university has always believed that graduate students are students, not workers — they are admitted as students, not hired as workers,” said John Beckman, N.Y.U.’s chief spokesman.
Mr. Beckman said things had substantially changed since the last time the graduate assistants had unionized. He said those who want to teach could be appointed as adjunct faculty members and join the adjuncts’ union.
Mr. Beckman said N.Y.U. has eliminated paid teaching assistantships for most graduate students and replaced them with fellowships, which do not include responsibilities such as teaching. But union supporters say many graduate students still have teaching obligations.
He added that the university provided many graduate students full scholarships of more than $50,000 a year or stipends of more than $22,000 a year, all while paying much of their health coverage. He called this “among the most generous financial aid packages for graduate students in the country.”
If N.Y.U. formally refuses to recognize the union, the graduate assistants plan to ask the labor board to hold a formal unionization election, a request that might prompt the board to reverse the 2004 decision.
Original publication can be found here, by STEVEN GREENHOUSE.