What Can We Learn From the NYU Graduate Union’s Historic Strike?

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What Can We Learn From the NYU Graduate Union’s Historic Strike?

When Arundhati Velamur was in the fourth year of her education PhD program at New York University, she often had conversations with her colleagues about how their department seemed to only hire external candidates for faculty positions. “It was something we kept talking about, and a lot of us were wondering how we could bring this issue up to our department,” said Velamur, who went to the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “So we went to the graduate student union and asked how they could help us.”

New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) quickly responded, putting Roy and her colleagues in touch with their departmental steward, the first line of contact for members with grievances, and helping them learn more about the ongoing efforts to negotiate a new contract for graduate student workers. “At this point, I was already seeing emails from GSOC in my inbox, but the help with the department organizing helped show me that this organization could really effect change on campus,” Velamur said.

In 2002, NYU’s graduate union, which is associated with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, became the first graduate union to be officially recognized by a private university after a semester-long strike, and since then union organizers have been increasing the rights of graduate workers by fighting for increased stipends and employee benefits for graduate workers. None of these worker benefits have come easily; the union has never been able to negotiate with the university without the looming threat of a strike.

The authorization of a strike after 10 months of trying to negotiate a new contract with the university came as no surprise to union members. After a three-week strike, the graduate student union and the administration came to a tentative agreement on a historic contract that provided workers with a living wage of $26 an hour and close to complete health insurance coverage. Additionally, it held the university to a promise to investigate the abolition of cops from NYU’s campus.

“Participating in the strike last spring reminded me of how much the union has won over the last 20 years,” Leandra Barrett Diaz, a GSOC unit representative said. “And nothing we’ve gotten out of NYU has been out of NYU’s benevolence, it’s always been graduate workers agitating, every step of the way.” The strike that ended up making headlines was not organized overnight. It took close to a year of preparation and outreach efforts by union leaders to ensure that a large majority of members of GSOC were ready and willing to join the strike effort.

Union leadership had been personally reaching out to fellow members since June to learn what workers wanted in their new contract. Using phone and text banking, they were able to connect interested members to someone who could have a more personalized conversation about what the union could do for them. The effects of this kind of outreach were clear: In March, 1,200 graduate student workers signed a petition asking the university to stop stonewalling negotiations. When the union decided to call a vote for authorizing a strike, the number of supporters only increased, with 96 percent of union members voting in favor. “In each stage of organizing, leading up to the strike, we brought in new waves of people who were interested in learning more about our efforts,” Colin Vanderburg, a member of the union’s spring bargaining committee, said.

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