[NYTimes] With New Agreement, N.Y.U. Would Again Recognize Graduate Assistants’ Union

For eight years, hundreds of graduate students at New York University have been at war with the school’s president, John Sexton, over his 2005 decision to stop recognizing the labor union that once represented more than 1,000 of the university’s graduate teaching and research assistants.

But N.Y.U. and the union for those graduate assistants, an arm of the United Auto Workers union, announced on Tuesday that they had reached an agreement under which the university would again recognize and bargain with the U.A.W. if a majority of graduate assistants vote in favor of having a union.

The U.A.W. and graduate teaching and research assistants hailed the accord because the university pledged that it would not campaign against the unionization effort and would allow for a quick election. Some 1,200 graduate assistants at N.Y.U. and the Polytechnic Institute of N.Y.U. in Brooklyn are scheduled to vote on Dec. 10 and 11 on whether to join the union, which represents thousands of white-collar workers across the country.

In a joint statement, N.Y.U. and the union said, “We are confident this agreement will re-establish a trusting and productive relationship between the union and the university, will improve the graduate student experience, and will sustain and enhance N.Y.U.’s academic competitiveness.”

As part of the agreement, the union agreed to withdraw a case it had before the National Labor Relations Board asking it to rule that graduate assistants be considered employees who have the right to unionize and bargain over contracts.

Julie Kushner, a regional director of the U.A.W. for New England and eastern New York, said the union decided to settle the case on its own because it feared that a ruling might not come for a year or more. In their statement, the university and the union said that they saw “this agreement as an opportunity to prove again that bargaining for graduate employees can be effective in a private university.”

In 2000, following a favorable decision by the labor relations board, a majority of N.Y.U.’s graduate assistants voted to join the union. Two years later, they became the first such group at a private university to sign a union contract with their school’s administration. That agreement raised stipends by almost 40 percent, improved health benefits and added pay if the assistants worked more than 20 hours a week at their duties.

But by 2004 the composition of the labor board had changed, and it ruled on behalf of Brown University that graduate teaching assistants at private universities were essentially students, not workers, and thus did not have a right to form a union and bargain for a contract.

When the contract for the N.Y.U. graduate assistants expired the next year, Dr. Sexton, the university’s president, announced that he would not negotiate a new one.

Graduate students went on strike, filling Washington Square Park with protesters and attracting some very unwelcome publicity for the university. Hundreds of professors taught their classes in coffee shops or apartments to avoid crossing the picket lines. Labor leaders from around the country came to offer their support. But after several months, the university won.

An issue that had long prevented agreement between N.Y.U. and the union was whether graduate research assistants in the natural or physical sciences could be included in the union. The university argued that the research those assistants did was an essential part of their academic training, and should not be viewed as employment. In their statement, the union and N.Y.U. acknowledged that they had not resolved their differences over whether the 275 graduate research assistants in the so-called hard sciences had bargaining rights. They will therefore not be included in the union.

The settlement comes at a tense time for the university. In the past year, eight faculty groups have passed votes criticizing Dr. Sexton’s leadership, a development that some organizers trace in part to the ill will engendered by the administration’s behavior during the strike.

Ms. Kushner said the agreement grew out of debates about whether Dr. Sexton had too often acted unilaterally, with many on the faculty protesting that they were left out of key decisions. She said the agreement was a product of the campus’s increased desire for “shared decision-making.”

The original article published on November 27, 2013 by Steven Greenhouse and Ariel Kaminer, can be found here.