Council member Christine Quinn advocates for student union rights

“We have been working on these issues at NYU for far too long.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s words, delivered outside Bobst Library, didn’t float up the twelve stories to John Sexton’s office. They were fired.

On Thursday afternoon, Quinn and several other New York City leaders came to NYU to speak out in support of research assistant and teaching assistant collective bargaining rights. After a round of speeches and pledges of support, the group headed inside Bobst to deliver an open letter to Sexton signed by over 250 state elected officials as well as a petition from over 1,000 NYU RAs and TAs.

Lead by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, a labor union representing graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU, and long time affiliate the United Auto Workers, one of the top national labor unions in the country, the rally was staged in protest of the benefits cuts and premium hikes made to graduate employee health plans in fall 2012.

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The volley of criticism rallied protesters outside the main student library. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick criticized the current system as “indentured servitude.” State Senator Brad Hoylman compared NYU to multinational corporations like Walmart.

“We want to make academia a profession for everyone in New York, not just those who happen to have a lot of money in their pocket. That is what this is about,” Quinn said.

The issue of graduate employee unionization has a long history at NYU, extending back at least thirteen years. In 2000, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) unanimously ruled that graduate assistants were to be recognized as “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act. Following this decision, GSOC became the first graduate employee union at a private American university to achieve collective bargaining rights. In 2002, it negotiated a three-year contract with NYU, the first graduate assistant union contract at a private university in the country.

“When you look at the university at that time when it had a fair contract, nothing bad happened,” observed Quinn. “It didn’t set the university back. NYU flourished during those years.”

Then, in 2004, a newly Republican-controlled NLRB reversed its decision 3-2 in a new ruling involving Brown University that stripped graduate employees of their union rights. When the NYU contract expired a year later, the administration announced that it would not be re-negotiating with GSOC.

Lily Defriend, a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at NYU who attended the rally, has been a teaching assistant for 5 semesters and taught over 200 students.

“One of the things we find so appalling about the administration’s actions is that the contract actually made NYU a stronger institution,” she explained. “It made the school more academically competitive and enabled us to contribute much higher caliber teaching and research because we were working under better conditions.”

The University’s benefit cuts and cost increases to the graduate employee health plan treads on another serious issue. Many of the cuts target employees with dependents, placing an extraordinary burden on them to pay for the care of their spouses or children. The implications here are far-reaching.

Daniel Huang is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]

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