[OP-ED WSN] Women’s History Month: A good time for NYU to become more inclusive

Published as an op-ed in the Washington Square News on March 28, 2013 as “Cuts to NYU graduate employee benefits hurt gender inclusivity in academic workplace”. Here is the original text of the op-ed written by Ashley Bate and Kaitlin Noss.

This Women’s History Month there is a curious silence about how NYU’s recent cuts to graduate employee health benefits contribute to making the university less inclusive.  NYU’s continued denial of collective bargaining to research and teaching assistants inhibits our ability to address these cuts and other ongoing challenges for women in the academic workforce.

Feminist labor activists have long fought for fair wages, health benefits that support families and recognition of housework and childcare as central to the economy.

Numerous studies [2] show that women face unique obstacles in breaking into the academic workforce, and that racism, ableism, homo- and transphobia increase these constraints for many of us.  Significant among the obstacles facing women is the lack of family-friendly policies, like paid family leave, affordable dependent health care, and childcare subsidies. Another recent study found that there is still a gap between the wages of men and women in academia, and an even wider income gap between women and women with children.

This is not just a problem for individual women pursuing an academic career; it also jeopardizes the inclusiveness and quality of our institutions of higher education. Many women with children do not pursue graduate education because of the lack of resources and options for family support and some of our most promising scholars abandon academe altogether because they do not see a viable pathway to achieve academic success while pursuing a meaningful family life

As graduate employees at NYU, we see these obstacles first hand.  While we earn one of the more nationally-competitive stipends, which our predecessors helped establish with the first GSOC/UAW contract in 2002, NYU is sorely lacking in many of the family-friendly policies mentioned above. The recent cuts to graduate employee benefits signal academia becoming less sustainable for women in general.

For example, NYU increased dependent health insurance premiums by 33% this year, bringing the cost to insure a dependent child to $4,460 or nearly 18% of our annual stipend—this is prohibitively expensive for most of us and particularly prohibitive for international students or those from low-income backgrounds. Similarly, while it is positive that early GSOC/UAW organizing helped increase the availability of childcare subsidies for NYU graduate students over a decade ago, the subsidy remains a mere $200 per semester.  Finally, we lack any type of guaranteed family leave.

At the University of Massachusetts and University of Washington, on the other hand, UAW-represented graduate employees have succeeded in getting the university to pay for a majority of dependent healthcare premiums (65% at UW and 90% at UMASS).  UAW graduate employees at the University of California have bargained 4 weeks of paid family leave.  At UW and UC, unionized graduate employees can also receive up to $2,600 and $2,400, respectively, per year in child care subsidies.  Equally important, at all three of these universities, graduate employees also have a fair grievance procedure through which they have successfully addressed issues like discrimination based on pregnancy status and are in a stronger position to deal with instances of sexual harassment or racial discrimination.

These are some of the many reasons why we, and a majority of our colleagues, support GSOC/UAW.  Overall, collective bargaining puts us in a stronger position to address real challenges we have as workers at the university and make the university better and more accessible at the same time.  In honor of Women’s History Month, we urge NYU to respect all graduate employees’ right to a democratic choice on winning back our Union so that we can work for a more inclusive NYU.

Ashley Bate is a PhD candidate in the NYU Department of Biology, and has been a Research Assistant and recipient of the department’s outstanding Teaching Assistant award

Kaitlin Noss is a PhD student in American Studies and Henry J. MacCracken Fellow