Innovation built on backs of graduate workers


Gisselle Cunningham and Lily Defriend

When The New York Times exposed the abusive treatment of construction workers at NYU Abu Dhabi in May, people around the world reacted with disgust to a growing pattern at NYU of building advanced facilities on the backs of low-wage and financially precarious workers. A lesser-known example of this pattern exists right here in New York City at the Polytechnic School of Engineering. Although Poly is touted by university administrators and city officials alike as a hub of innovation and economic development, much of this intellectual progress comes at the expense of hundreds of hard working, low-wage graduate student employees who develop and carry out cutting-edge experimental research in labs across campus.

Because of Poly’s substantial Incubator initiative, new research and patents have generated $250 million in direct economic impact, created 900 new jobs, and pioneered groundbreaking startups — NYU has even compiled a long list of international conference presentations, grants, awards and more, achieved in the recent past by Poly researchers, many of them graduate students. But, the graduate student workers who helped to make those projects possible are paid as little as $10 per hour.

Graduate assistants at Poly carry out truly innovative research projects with important social ends. Some projects aim to solve urban transportation problems or develop improved medical technologies, while others tackle clean energy solutions or storm resilience. As Poly is flourishing, however, graduate assistants are struggling to make ends meet on low wages and nonexistent benefits.

Unlike the workers at NYU Abu Dhabi, however, graduate employees have the right to collective bargaining through the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/United Auto Workers and have been engaged in negotiations with NYU since February for a first contract. The administration has so far failed to put a fair offer on the table, despite more than 1,000 NYU and Poly GSOC/UAW members members signing a letter demanding that NYU raise graduate employee wages and greatly improve access to health benefits. Better pay would enable graduate assistants to focus on their cutting-edge work.

After the Abu Dhabi scandal broke, NYU issued a disingenuous apology. At Poly, workers have the opportunity to win something more meaningful: a legally binding contract that guarantees fair wages and benefits for graduate assistants. Only once students are compensated fairly will Poly become the global center for innovation that NYU claims it to be and that we all want it to be.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 21 print edition. Email Gisselle Cunningham and Lily Defriend at [email protected].