Impending Strike by NYU’s Graduate Student Employees
Date: April 25, 2021
TO: The NYU Community
FROM: Andrew Hamilton, President; Katherine Fleming, Provost
Dear Members of the NYU Community,
NYU’s graduate student union is threatening to strike on Monday. We are writing to share with you the University's position and explain why we believe this strike is unwarranted, untimely, and regrettable, and our belief that if the union had agreed to make use of a mediator, this strike could have been avoided.
Unlike other private universities, NYU is not negotiating a first contract, but a contract renewal
NYU voluntarily recognized a graduate employees’ bargaining unit more than seven years ago—the first private university to do so—and negotiated a first contract, which expired in August 2020. While first contracts can be difficult to negotiate, renewals can normally be negotiated fairly swiftly. Not in this case: the first contract has 27 provisions; GSOC came into the bargaining for the contract renewal with 90 additional demands, quite a number of which were outside the normal scope of bargaining. In the sixteen bargaining sessions we have held with GSOC/UAW, there has been precious little progress in reducing that number.
That has led us to repeatedly call for the intervention of a neutral, mutually-agreed-upon mediator; GSOC/UAW has repeatedly and steadfastly rejected any use of a mediator, even though a mediator helped settle the prior GSOC/UAW contract without a strike, even though a mediator helped both Columbia and Harvard recently reach settlements with their graduate employees.
Why? GSOC/UAW won’t say. However, if it is because they simply do not want to hear that some of the demands they are making are not reasonable, that is very unfortunate, and it is emblematic of the impediments the union has erected to complete this contract.
NYU came to these negotiations in a spirit of good faith and with a wish to achieve a fair contract that honors the contributions of our graduate employees, who are our students in addition to being our part-time (20 hrs or less per week) employees. We remain committed to that goal but feel thwarted by GSOC’s approach.
As a starting point, NYU’s graduate employees are better paid than those at peer institutions, but that hasn’t stopped NYU from making a generous contract renewal offer
Recent settlements at other major private universities provided for lower hourly wages than NYU currently gives. As an example, Harvard’s contract set an hourly wage for graduate employees at $17/hr; by contrast, NYU currently pays its graduate employees a minimum hourly wage of $20/hr.
Similarly, unlike at other universities, a significant majority of NYU’s fully-funded Ph.D. students receive very generous support—full tuition remission, a minimum stipend of some $30,000, and NYU paying their health care premiums—as pure fellowship, meaning they are not required to work to receive their support. Any work they choose to do is paid over and above their financial aid package.
Notwithstanding those higher wages, NYU's proposals included increases that would raise hourly wages by over 20% more – an offer that would leave NYU’s graduate employees even further ahead of peers.
In addition, among other items, NYU’s position includes:
- A significant new expansion of subsidies for health care premiums
- A new $200,000 Graduate Employee Health Insurance Support Fund to assist grad employees with out-of-pocket medical cost
- A proposal to double the child care subsidy fund
- Agreeing to a service bonus of 7% of the total amount earned in a semester by graduate employees with semester-based appointments
- Six weeks of paid parental leave to all qualifying graduate employees – a benefit that matches what NYU offers to full-time University employees.
Even were this not a year when most NYU employees went without a raise due to the dire financial impact of COVID-19, this would be a generous offer—the kind of offer that should lead to the rapid renewal of a contract—and it demonstrates the seriousness with which NYU has approached the effort to achieve a fair agreement.
Proposing over 90 new provisions to an existing contract that contains 27 provisions is characteristic of GSOC/UAW’s unreasonable demands. After 10 months of negotiating, GSOC is demanding, for example, a nearly 80% increase in the hourly wage, nearly half tuition remission for Masters students, and a $9,000 “untaxed subsidy” for the young children of bargaining unit members. Altogether, their demands would cost NYU as much as an additional half-a-billion dollars over the course of the contract.
Unreasonable demands also make it harder to actually bargain. GSOC has invoked the idea that we should "meet them halfway." But half of an unreasonable demand does not constitute compromise. For instance, moving from a demand for a first-year increase of 130% in hourly wages to a demand for a 60% increase doesn't really help move things closer to a settlement, particularly when GSOC member wages are already well above those of peers, and when faculty and administrators have received no increase this academic year.
Some concluding thoughts: mediation, thoughts on the strike deadline, and sustaining our students' education
We write to you today mostly in sorrow, but with plenty of frustration, too. If ever there were an instance where a strike was misguided, this is it.
The University publicly renews its call that GSOC agrees to bring in a mediator. Mediation has helped at NYU in the past, has helped at Columbia, and has helped at Harvard. And if GSOC continues to reject a mediator, they ought to offer a full and frank explanation of why.
We find it inexplicable that GSOC plans to begin its strike before a bargaining session that they agreed to last week for tomorrow afternoon. Therefore, we also respectfully recommend that GSOC suspend its strike deadline until after the Monday session they agreed to last week, or, even better, until after both sides have had an opportunity to give mediation a chance. There’s a good offer on the table; a fair contact is within reach. Moreover, there is a good deal at stake for NYU’s students, who have already been through a lot this year.
However, in the event of a decision by GSOC to proceed with a job action—a decision we think would be regrettable and unnecessary—the focus of the University, its schools, its academic departments, and its faculty will be to ensure that our students' education will continue with as little disruption as possible: that instruction and learning continues, that tests and papers are evaluated, that courses are completed and grades awarded, and that our l responsibilities to our students are fulfilled.
Lastly, those on the opposite side of the bargaining table are not simply unionized employees – they are our students, and as such we have a special connection to them. We are eager to avoid rancor or bitterness, for whatever happens, they will still be our students afterward, too.
NYU has made a generous offer, remains committed to good-faith bargaining, still has the goal of coming to terms soon, and will remain focused on the academic progress of our students. We hope those on the other side of the bargaining table share our goals.
Andrew Hamilton and Katherine Fleming