The negotiations between the NYU administration and the Graduate Student Organizing Committee over the past several months have been plagued by misrepresentation and a lack of decorum. The two sides entered negotiations late Monday night in an attempt to reach a compromise, and reached a tentative agreement in order to avoid a strike in the middle of midterms. GSOC entered the negotiations looking for increased wages, 100 percent NYU coverage of all healthcare costs for all graduate student workers and their families, tuition remission and shorter contract terms for more flexible negotiation periods. While the university has proven to be somewhat willing to negotiate on increasing wages and health care coverage, its tone has been inappropriate and has widely mischaracterized GSOC’s positions.
GSOC is primarily fighting for higher wages and better healthcare for Poly graduate students. These students now earn $10 to $11 an hour, about equal to the base pay for a Starbucks barista in New York City — and baristas get higher bonuses and better benefits than NYU currently offers. NYU has previously offered to gradually raise their wages to $19 per hour by 2020, but GSOC seeks at least $20 per hour by 2017. Many Poly students are largely at the mercy of the university in terms of wages, as foreign students are not allowed to work for companies other than the ones directly established by the university. In addition, NYU has not covered any of these graduate students’ health insurance premiums, and their most recent offer as of print time would cover 90 percent of these costs — an increase from the 70 percent discussed beforehand. These policies directly contrast with NYU’s other efforts to cast the school of engineering as an equal part of the university.
NYU provost David McLaughlin sent an email to the student body Friday that overstressed the university’s “generosity” and suggested that meeting GSOC’s demands would be “irresponsible.” The time for condescending calls for benevolent negotiations has come to an end.
In the same email, McLaughlin claimed GSOC demands “have not altered despite months of negotiations with the presence of a mediator.” This claim is false: graduate students have dropped numerous demands. GSOC has abandoned requests for a return to 2011-12 lower-cost healthcare coverage, partial tuition remission for graduate students and subsidized professional dental care. The dental plan NYU currently offers GSOC is StuDent, which covers care received only from dental students — not professionals. NYU has also failed to make it clear that they are offering hourly graduate students a lower level of health insurance than fully funded doctoral students. In addition, an August 2014 union position summary sought higher wage increases for all graduate students, including $25 per hour for hourly employees — significantly higher than the $17 per hour it is now asking for. The union has also entirely dropped its previous request for vision insurance. These lies on the part of the administration are clearly meant to imply that GSOC is overreaching, and that the threatened strike was only the latest unreasonable action.
Furthermore, using this email to speak to the student body was inappropriate. GSOC does not have the same ability to access the NYU community and make its case. The email was anything but objective and contained lies about previous efforts, making the platform’s use even more disrespectful to GSOC. To be fair, some of the tactics GSOC has employed in the past have also been suspect — primarily the distribution of flyers to the parents of prospective students. But this is inconsequential compared to the damage that NYU’s misrepresentative email to the entire student body caused.
NYU has defended itself by continuously pointing out it is the only private university in the country to recognize a graduate student union. Fortunately, the university is negotiating contracts despite the fact that GSOC lost its federal right to collective bargaining in 2004. There have been pushes at other universities, including Columbia, to unionize just as NYU graduate student workers have successfully done, but they are years behind GSOC in terms of progress made toward the right to collectively bargain. NYU has been quite progressive in the fact that it negotiates with graduate students, and this practice deserves praise. However, it is not a valid reason to provide these students with less than they deserve.
Post-secondary education has long been viewed as a time for students in their 20s to live in cramped apartments and survive off Ramen. These students teach classes, hold office hours, grade papers and perform their own research, yet NYU estimates their typical work week at 20 hours a week. The wages graduate students receive nationwide are too low. NYU offers highly competitive stipends compared to other universities, but that does not mean they are livable wages, especially for doctoral candidates starting families.
Graduate students take their workload very seriously, and the threat of a strike was not made lightly. NYU has understandably taken the position that “a strike is uncalled for,” as fully funded doctoral students at NYU are in a relatively well-off position compared to graduate students nationwide. Yet this stance ignores the fact that GSOC was sticking up for significantly underpaid Poly students, as well as making the case that graduate students nationwide are undercompensated. The administration’s tone has only exacerbated the situation, and though a strike was avoided, NYU must acknowledge GSOC’s willingness to compromise in the future.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 10 print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]